By Jacob Perkins
The Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) Commissioner’s Student Council met March 20 to discuss student mental health and Kentucky’s need for high-quality teachers.
Damien Sweeney, KDE’s program coordinator for Comprehensive School Counseling, and Judi Vanderhaar, program consultant for the Office of Continuous Improvement and Support, spoke to the students about the importance of school counselors and the ability of school staff to recognize when a student may be struggling with mental health issues.
“One of our jobs is to create one voice of counselors who focus on the three pillars of academic, social/emotional and career development,” Sweeney said. “There is a need to move away from the traditional sense of a ‘guidance counselor’ to being a ‘school counselor.’”
Vanderhaar expressed how vital it is to ensure that every adult in every school is trained to support the mental well-being of students.
“There are no standards in place for all of the work that needs to be happening, and experiences are so varied. There are a lot of great trainings and impactful approaches being implemented, but they aren’t everywhere yet and that’s a huge challenge.” she said.
Brendan Quirk, a senior at Eastern High School (Jefferson County), asked what students could be doing at their schools to address mental health problems.
“Be mindful.” Sweeney said. “Be present. I want you guys relating to each other. We want you connecting, not just with your specific group of friends, but with everyone.
Sweeney said it’s important for school counselors to have the time in their schedule to address the many social-emotional concerns students come to school with every day. But because of the many roles school counselors often fill, finding that time can be difficult.
“The suicide prevention that I have seen is just a slideshow that takes about 30 minutes,” said Laura Duke, a senior at iLEAD Academy/Owen County High School. “It has not been significant.”
“We have to do more.” Vanderhaar said. “We have to go beyond the minimum. Suicide prevention should be embedded in the curriculum throughout the year.”
Kathryn Collins, program consultant for the Office of Educator Licensure and Effectiveness, spoke to the students about how the KDE is aiming to ensure a high-quality teaching workforce. Mental health and ensuring the state has a high-quality and a more diverse teaching workforce were on the top 10 list of concerns that the students addressed at their first meeting.
One way KDE is trying to address teacher shortages and improve teacher quality is through the Teaching and Learning Pathway that districts can implement in their schools. Schools also can implement the Educators Rising Kentucky curriculum, which offers dual credit to some universities in the state.
“Educators Rising – through the Teaching and Learning Pathway – increases interest in education.” Collins said. “This ensures that Kentucky produces effective teachers.”
Collins spoke to the students about the KDE’s Kentucky’s Equitable Access to Effective Educators Plan, which was developed to address the need to improve equitable access to effective teachers and leaders. KAET emphasizes the development of the knowledge, skills and competencies identified in the Kentucky Teacher Performance Standards and the Kentucky Framework for Teaching. It is a renewable loan forgiveness program designed to provide financial support and mentoring to pre-service teachers who are enrolled in teacher preparation and/or certification programs at public state universities.
“Every student, regardless of race, financial situation, home environment or academic situation has the same right to an effective teacher,” Collins said.