The Walker County Board of Education's mental health efforts is being recognized across the state.
Earlier this year, Walker County Schools Superintendent Dr. Joel Hagood was asked to speak at the School Superintendents of Alabama conference to share the school board's strides in providing mental health services to students.
State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey visited the school system's trauma-informed classroom at Sumiton Elementary School last year and recommended Hagood speak at the SSA conference.
"I shared with them all that we had done and the partnerships that existed to make all of that happen," Hagood said.
His speech was appropriate for the conference's main agenda — to discuss the mental health needs in schools.
It was announced last summer that Misty Whisenhunt was hired to be the school system's mental health coordinator, and since then she has worked to secure partnerships that have provided mental health services for students.
"We saw that there was a major need and then we took the initiative to start developing our own program to help our kids," Hagood said. "We developed partnerships with the Walker Area Community Foundation, Youth Advocacy Programs, Northwest Alabama Mental Health, the University of Alabama, and others. It was a total community effort."
Thanks to a grant that the Walker Area Community Foundation awarded to Youth Advocate Programs of Jasper, a trauma-informed classroom was created at Sumiton Elementary School to provide sensory activities for children and a place for behavioral interventionist Anthony Sellers to work with students who have a variety of mental health needs.
Hagood said Sellers has now been promoted to serve as a district-wide interventionist, where he will visit students at all K-8 schools in the school system.
Someone will replace Sellers in the trauma-informed classroom at Sumiton Elementary.
The school system is also collaborating with Northwest Alabama Mental Health to provide a therapist for Walker County Schools.
With Whisenhunt's leadership, teachers and counselors at all schools have been participating in training to further serve students with mental health needs.
Both the Walker County and Jasper City school systems are also taking part in the Handle with Care program, a partnership with local law enforcement agencies and Youth Advocate Programs, that allows officers to notify schools if a particular child has witnessed a traumatic event, in an effort to better serve children who may be going through a difficult time.
Hagood addressed all of these accomplishments at the SSA conference.
"Sometimes, people just need to generate an idea about how you would go about doing something like that, so they just wanted us to share our story with them of how we had the need, we took the initiative, we came together as a community, and we made it happen," he said.
From the time Hagood was sworn in as superintendent in January 2019, he said one of his top priorities was making sure students with emotional struggles had a support system — someone to call their friend.
"This was something that was big on my radar way back when I was principal at Oakman High School. We had the Community At-Risk Reduction Effort, and every faculty member had two or three of our most at-risk kids assigned to them each year. It was called Project CARE," Hagood said.
Through Project CARE, each teacher was assigned two or three at-risk students to mentor.
"Their job was to develop relationships with those kids, check on them, do little special things for them. You know what that does? That lets kids see that somebody at that school cares about me," Hagood said. "They notice if I'm not at school; they call and check on me if I'm absent; they know when my birthday is. When you're a kid, that goes a long way."
Hagood said he believers Oakman High had high attendance and graduation rates as a result of Project CARE.
"I saw how those things made a difference, so when I became superintendent, I always had a vision of expanding that system-wide," he said. "It took a while. It has been a process, but I think we're making headway on it, and we are seeing the fruits of that."
Walker County school board leaders, along with Whisenhunt, are continuing to look for collaborations that can benefit students.
The school board's work to address mental health continued this summer, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, with a mental health newsletter aimed at encouraging students and their parents. The newsletter also consisted of a list of valuable mental health resources.
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