Good morning, Chairman Gray and members of the Committee. My name is Shannon Hodge and I am the Founding Executive Director of the DC Charter School Alliance, the local non-profit that advocates on behalf of public charter schools to ensure that all students in the District receive the great public education they deserve. The DC Charter School Alliance is also a member of the Strengthening Families Through Behavioral Health Coalition. I’m here today to urge the Council to commit to complete the expansion of the Department of Behavioral Health’s (DBH’s) school-based mental health program to all remaining public schools.
When school buildings closed their doors to students, teachers, and staff last March, we knew the public health crisis that was just beginning to unfold could be devastating to our city. But few of us could have predicted the magnitude of the crisis and the fallout we’re still dealing with more than a year later. Everyone has experienced turmoil from COVID-19, and so many have lost loved ones to the virus. But for many more families, especially in communities of color in the hardest-hit parts of our city, the pandemic has created or exacerbated instabilities in finances, employment, housing, and food.
Dealing with just one of these issues would be difficult for any family. But for many families, the pandemic brought multiple, overlapping crises into their homes. And with the traditional way of schooling uprooted, students had to adjust both to virtual learning and social isolation. That isolation, along with all the other crises their families have experienced, took its toll.
There’s no question instability and loss from the pandemic have exacerbated student and family mental health needs. In a student well-being survey designed by mental health professionals and administered by EmpowerK12 this past fall, nearly half of D.C. students reported their family’s financial situation became more stressful, while one in five students recently experienced the loss of an adult they care about. And again, these hardships were felt more acutely in D.C.’s most impoverished wards. In a mid-year update to the survey, only 32 percent of students responded that they feel happy “every day” –– a drop from 39 percent on a similar survey conducted last summer.
While it’s true that with increasing vaccine availability we can envision an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, the problems it’s created and exacerbated are likely here to stay. We need to make sure charter school leaders have the resources to address the mental health needs of students and families. That’s how we’ll continue recovering from the damage inflicted by the pandemic, and it’s how we’ll continue to help our students thrive.
Fully Fund the Expansion of DBH’s School-Based Mental Health Program
We know that one of the easiest ways to improve access to mental health care for students is to make services available at school. That’s why we’re grateful for DBH’s school-based mental health program, which partners with community-based organizations and seeks to bring behavioral health services to children in all public schools. Even during the pandemic, school-based mental health clinicians have continued to identify those with behavioral health needs and promote students’ social and emotional health in a virtual setting.
We, along with members of the coalition testifying today, called for the additional $6.4 million needed to fund the expansion of the school-based mental health program to ensure those schools that don’t yet have a city-funded clinician can get one. While we’re encouraged by Mayor Bowser’s announcement that the program will be fully funded, the budget book only included $5.8 million in funding for its expansion.
Our schools shouldn’t have to choose between adequately promoting social and emotional health for their students or supporting their academic needs. Schools need to be able to arrange the kinds of targeted interventions for students at-risk of developing a behavioral health problem to ensure those students can thrive. And schools need the resources to adequately provide support and treatment for students who already have behavioral health problems.
That’s why we’re asking the Council to prioritize supporting DBH’s program this school year. Specifically, we’re asking for an additional $841,000 over the $5.8 million in Mayor Bowser’s proposal to fully fund its expansion. (1) We appreciate the work and investments Mayor Bowser, DC Health, and other officials have prioritized to support our schools reopening efforts. And we hope we can count on your support to do even more in the final budget to ensure we have the strongest reopening possible.
Invest in Schools and Students
Finally, as we consider the challenges facing our public education system and broader community due to the pandemic, we need bold and targeted investments in our schools and students. That means the city needs to:
- Fully fund the facilities allotment so that our teachers, staff, and students have what they need to feel safe in well-maintained buildings;
- Increase the UPSFF foundation formula by 4 percent; and
- Fully fund the at-risk and English Language Learner weights to the levels recommended by the 2013 adequacy study to ensure schools have the resources they need to support their most vulnerable students
Thank you for your time and attention to this matter, and I welcome your questions.
(1) The $841,000 figure includes $600,000 needed to reach the DC Alliance’s original ask of $6.4 million and an additional $241,000 needed to place a city-funded clinician in the three newly-approved charter schools.