Could bad news drive good change?
Test Scores & Mental Health
On October 24th the LA Times delivered the news that, as measured by the 2022 Smarter Balanced Assessment System, 2 in 3 students don’t meet California Department of Education’s math standards and more than half did not meet the English standards.  Nearly a month before this news, the LA Times delivered what I would term a more tragic report that, “Young adults in California experience mental health challenges at alarming rates, with more than three-quarters reporting anxiety in the last year, more than half reporting depression, 31% experiencing suicidal thinking and 16% self-harm, according to the results of a survey commissioned by the California Endowment.”  Beyond being heartbreaking, the two stories have two other similarities.
The first is that this isn’t Covid news: both these trends existed before the pandemic. As the LA Times noted in the same article, “The scores have also amplified the troubling fact that even before the pandemic, 60% of California’s students were testing below grade level in math and nearly half in English.” And in 2019 The Pew Research Center reported the total number of teenagers who recently experienced depression increased fifty-nine percent between 2007 and 2017.  The second thing they have in common is the billion dollar price tag.
You may recall in May of 2021 Gov. Gavin Newsom announced $20 Billion in investments for, “Transforming Public Schools as Gateways to Equity & Opportunity.”  And in that same year California announced it would invest more than $4 billion in the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative (CYBHI), a multi-pronged initiative to improve mental health care for the state’s children and youth. I’m concerned by these numbers, not because they’re big (this past April Forbes reported 186 billionaires live in California) but because of their ratio, 5:1, academic learning: child health. The health of our children is a prerequisite for all other goals and schools should be a part of that plan.
Toxic Stress & Adverse Childhood Experiences
We know now that toxic stress impairs development which impairs learning.  This is the work that came out of the landmark ACEs study (Adverse Childhood Experiences) which has continued to be refined and informed to now include systemic racism.  The former Surgeon General of California, Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris, endorsed seven practices that mediate toxic stress. These seven practices provide a map for the enriched environment that children must be immersed in if we have any hope of meeting the CDE’s standards. As we, as invested community members, begin to discuss how to spend the combined $24 billion, each one of these supports should be woven tightly into any solution the state, the county, the district, and any school want to endorse in the name of “solving the crisis.” Either crisis. Any crisis.
To varying degrees, we are already taking these steps. Schools are now where we feed children, in some cases, three meals a day. By one estimate approximately 70% of students who receive mental health services* access them through their school.  Here in Santa Barbara, Wilderness Youth Project provides access to nature for eight schools (for which SBUSD contributes none of their share of the $24 billion).
How do we turn $24 billion into the greatest number of supportive relationships?
From my perspective, at the heart of this task is the question, how do we turn $24 billion into the greatest number of supportive relationships? This is a question that tears down the separate silos of Healthcare, Education and Social Service. It centers racial equity and justice through repair and earned trust.  It invests in local communities by hiring, training and mentoring emerging professionals with the same lived experience as the children they serve. And lastly, I have to say it, especially here in Santa Barbara, it involves getting outside.
The outdoors is the most efficient place to build a supportive relationship.
Over the last 13 years I have been on nearly two thousand WYP programs, which adds up to six thousand hours with over ten thousand kids. I can testify that being a shared witness to the wonder of the planet’s life-force outside the human sphere is a bonding experience. The recipe is simple: small groups, varied terrain, freedom of movement, and loose parts. Question more, explain less. Repeat periodically until the relationship feels good. With continued practice the world, itself, will be a supportive relationship. That’s learning. That’s health.
About the Author
Director of School-Based Programs & Lead WYP Program Staff
Andrew is always quick to point out that he grew up in Vermont. Throughout college, he worked off and on in the field for the Adirondack Nature Conservancy. After graduating with an Earth Science Degree from Wesleyan University he continued the work of backcountry education in New York, Alaska, and California. He holds an MEd and has taught 3rd and 4th grade, as well as Middle School. His wife and daughter continue to school him in the wonders of the beach while he revels in the Mediterranean winters of the California Coast.
Resources & Footnotes
For anyone interested in a deep dive of the current relationship of schools and mental health in California, I highly recommend a 2021 publication, School Mental Health 101: A Primer for Medi-Cal Managed Plans by the National Center for Youth Law. CenCal Health is the Medi-Cal MCP for Santa Barbara County.
 Geiger, A.W. & Davis, L. (2019). A growing number of American teenagers – particularly girls – are facing depression. Pew Research Center. https://pewrsr.ch/2xCxEmP
 L. Darling-Hammond, L. Flook, C. Cook-Harvey, B. Barron & D. Osher, Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development, Applied Developmental Science, 24:2, 97-140, 98 (2020)
 See Cal. School-Based Health Alliance, Public Funding for School-Based Mental Health Programs, 1, https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/BTB25-MHReform-08.pdf
 From, “Foundational Practices of Healing-Centered Community Schools.” Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE). https://cachildrenstrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/PACE_Infographic_Healing-Centered-Community-Schools.pdf