Young people are experiencing mental illness and suicidal thoughts at increasing rates during the pandemic, but there is evidence that ETHS student well-being has improved this year as teachers, staff and students adjust to life back in the classroom, Associate Principal for Student Services Taya Kinzie told the District 202 school board Monday.
Staff and administrators presented several reports related to student health, safety and well-being at the March 14 meeting of the Evanston Township High School District 202 Board of Education, updating board members on both the 2020-21 academic year and this year thus far, as spring break and the fourth quarter approach.
Kinzie and Principal Marcus Campbell covered several key data points on the mental health and wellness of ETHS students. Back in December 2021, Kinzie informed the board that suicide risk assessments of students had doubled from fall quarter in 2019 to fall quarter in 2021.
According to student survey responses in the 2020-21 school year, 33% of all ETHS students said that stress impacted their daily lives for at least 11 days of the past month, while 30% said they felt sad or hopeless most days for at least two weeks.
But there are signs of improvement this year as ETHS students returned to in-person schooling. While ETHS saw a 104% increase in suicide risk assessments from fall 2019 to fall 2021 and a 39% increase from the second quarter of 2019-20 to the same period in 2021-22, in the third quarter of the current academic year, the school saw a 75% decrease in risk assessments compared with the third quarter of 2019-20.
“We’re all human beings. Some days are good, some days are not. Some days we have courage, some days we’re afraid and some days, we’re both,” Campbell said. “And I think that I certainly, and many folks, have been trying to model that humanity and that vulnerability because that’s what it is. It’s modeling our vulnerability, our hopes, our fears and not acting like everything is OK all the time, because it’s not.”
Kinzie and Campbell both said that students have responded well to the school’s efforts to embed a social-emotional learning curriculum into each classroom. Kinzie reported that she heard from one student who used coping mechanisms they learned from the social-emotional curriculum to stay calm during the December gun-threat lockdown at ETHS.
Based on data collected by the student services staff, 106 students were hospitalized for psychiatric concerns in the 2020-21 year, down from 116 during the prior year. However, 26 students experienced multiple hospitalizations, compared with just 12 who did the year before.
LGBTQ students and students of color continue to seek out mental health support at higher rates than the general student population. Among all students, 29% reported searching for some kind of mental health treatment in the 2020-21 academic year, but 75% of transgender or nonbinary students did so, and 47% of female students identifying as two or more races also sought support. Just 19% of male students reported seeking support or treatment.
“Seeing the number of students hospitalized and being evaluated for suicidal tendencies and so forth, it’s just overwhelming,” board member Pat Maunsell said. “I just want to acknowledge that and acknowledge our students who are experiencing that and their families, as well as all the wonderful staff that are – in their own stress over the last couple of years – being there for our students.”
Support systems available
Also at Monday’s meeting, representatives from the ETHS Health Center and academic support services described some of the resources that students have access to for physical, emotional and educational help.
The health center offers primary care, reproductive care and mental health services to all students, according to Dr. Aimee Crow, a pediatrician and the director of the center. Social workers, doctors and nurses are on staff to provide any care necessary to students who show up or schedule an appointment, and the center also partners with Erie Family Health Centers for gynecologic care.
According to Crow, 46% of the center’s patients are on Medicaid and 30% are uninsured, which she said was evidence that the center is addressing a need in the community and providing care to those who may not have other options.
Meanwhile, ETHS is also lucky enough to have a number of different built-in academic programs for students who may need extra help or could use additional time with teachers, said Kiwana Brown, the director of academic supports at ETHS. Among other things, the high school has an Academic Study Center, the Literacy Lab, a school reading specialist, a Homework Center and peer tutoring services.
But perhaps the most effective service available for students is the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, which is a nationwide four-year program with specialized classes and study groups aimed at preparing students for college and career paths. AVID focuses on providing opportunities for underrepresented minority and first-generation college students, offering services like standardized test prep and college trips.
According to ETHS AVID Coordinator Tenesha White, about 180 students are currently enrolled in the program, and so far this year, AVID seniors have received more than $2 million in college scholarships. At ETHS, 99% of AVID students go on to a two- or four-year college, and 90% of them are still enrolled after two years, White said. The two-year college retention rate for all ETHS graduates is 74%.
Given that “it’s a successful program that works,” White appealed to board members on Monday night for more student spots in AVID. ETHS “should have at least 350 students in the AVID program,” which would represent 10% of the total student population, she said.
Board Vice President Monique Parsons expressed strong support for increasing the number of AVID students, while Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction said more coordination with District 65 to increase awareness of the program among younger grade levels would help improve numbers.
“It seems like [AVID] is working, and we know that we have students that need it,” Parsons said. “We need more students in AVID.”