A $200,000 grant received by Sonora Union High School District in December will help fund mental health services at Tuolumne County’s first wellness center for students, which opened in August.
The center was developed after the district’s board and local stakeholders determined at a meeting in April that students’ mental health will be the district’s top priority moving forward.
District staff and stakeholders were working with data from the 2020-21 academic year California Healthy Kids Survey, a statewide anonymous, confidential survey of schools’ climate and safety, student wellness, and youth resiliency.
Comparing state data with survey responses from about 500 Sonora students—all the district’s ninth graders and all the 11th graders combined—they found that students’ mental health responses here were significantly worse than statewide averages.
Examples include 61% of Sonora Union High School District ninth graders and 63% of the district’s 11th graders acknowledge chronic sadness/hopelessness, compared to state averages of 33% and 37% respectively.
Furthermore, 26% of the Sonora district’s ninth graders and 33% of the district’s 11th graders have considered suicide, compared to state averages of 16% and 17%.
In addition, 35% of the Sonora district’s ninth graders and 50% of the district’s 11th graders reported current alcohol or drug use, compared to state averages of 15% and 23%.
“We are twice the state average in some categories,” Stacy Kroeze, a counselor who works in the Sonora High Wellness Center, said Wednesday. “Chronic sadness, suicide consideration, and drug use, we’re double the state average in almost all those.”
It was more than data, Kroeze said.
After COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were lifted, the district’s counseling team noticed many students were having difficulty returning to and feeling comfortable in campus and classroom environments, and they noted increased levels of anxiety among students.
Drug use among students also increased during the pandemic because so many students were more isolated, at home, and more opportunities for drug use were presenting themselves without the normal structure, peer interactions, and mentoring available in their school communities.
Heather Albertson, the Sonora district’s school site therapist, helped open the Sonora High Wellness Center in August.
Ed Pelfrey, the district superintendent, said Wednesday the district spent $42,000 renovating existing office space to be the new Wellness Center, and the funding came from developer fees that are earmarked for capital improvements to increase student services.
Albertson then went to work in September on writing a grant application to help fund future services for Sonora district students through the Wellness Center.
Albertson said it was her first time doing a grant application and she relied on help from the then-county superintendent of schools, Cathy Parker. She and her team visited an existing student wellness center in Roseville.
Albertson submitted the grant application to the state in October and she and her district team members received news in December the grant application was successful. The grant will enable Sonora Union High School District to bill Medi-Cal for mental health services the district is already providing to the district’s students.
One of the key elements of the successful grant application is the district will receive $200,000 over two years for the district to partner with a technical assistance team for guidance to establish Medi-Cal billing.
“With the reimbursements we’ll get from Medi-Cal this will allow us to provide even more mental health services for our students,” Albertson said.
Pelfrey said Wednesday he could not estimate how much the district has been spending annually on mental health services for students. That is what the grant funding will do: determine how much the district can bill Medi-Cal for.
“We’ve been providing services with four counselors and a clinician,” Pelfrey said. “They do more than provide services that can be billable to Medi-Cal. What we are going to do is look at all the services our counseling team has been providing and try to determine what costs can be reimbursed by Medi-Cal back to the district. When we find out what is billable and we’re getting funded, then we hope to be able to afford to provide additional mental health services for our students.”
Serenity Waldie is the front line staff member for student needs and appointments at the Sonora High Wellness center, which remains Tuolumne County’s first and only wellness center for students. The counselors are Kroeze, Courtney Castle, and Elizabeth Garrett. Albertson remains as the Sonora district’s school site therapist.
Monthly themes so far for the Sonora High Wellness Center have included kindness, drug and alcohol use prevention, suicide awareness and prevention, and bullying. The Anxiety Toolkit for Teens, Social Anxiety Relief for Teens, The Self Esteem Workbook for Teens, and The Anxiety Workbook for Teens are among the titles on a bookshelf in the Wellness Center.
“Our goal is to teach the students skills they can use,” Kroeze said. “Skills they can use to work on their own mental health on their own time.”