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Local school administrators visit Capitol Hill to discuss mental health resource funding

Times Record - 3/24/2019

March 24-- Mar. 24--Three local principals visited Washington, D.C., last week to encourage legislators to pass laws that support public schools, particularly those related to mental health services.

Lori Griffin, Ballman Elementary principal; Brad Ray, Northside High School assistant principal; and Brian Kirkendoll, Alma High School assistant principal, were three of 180 educators to visit with the legislative aides of various representatives. For the local educators, those legislators included U.S. Reps. Steve Womack and Bruce Westerman and U.S. Sen. John Boozman. The trip was a part of the annual Advocacy Conference sponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Kirkendoll, NASSP Arkansas state coordinator, scheduled the meetings during the visit. Though Congress was in recess, the visit still allowed for the educators to have "protected time" and discuss the issues teachers and administrators face on a "day-to-day basis," Ray said.

"Our focus was to bring about awareness on the continual need for more mental health services in public schools and to identify the appropriations and funds needed to hire more professionals in this area," Kirkendoll wrote in an email Friday.

Ray, president of the Arkansas Association of Secondary School Principals, said cuts to Medicaid have impacted the resources available for students.

They hope to see partnerships between schools and community organizations to help students receive mental healthcare on campus, as well as increase funding for therapists and mental health services. It comes down to delivering the best mental healthcare in a school setting.

Fort Smith Public Schools has prioritized mental health care as part of its Vision 2023 strategic plan.

Cherri Byford, the district's lead secondary counselor, previously told the Times Record she tries to spend 75 percent of her time working with students. This means meeting with students individually, leading clubs to discuss kindness and healthy coping mechanisms for stress, and teaching classes about positive mental health.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson recently signed Senate Bill 199, now Act 190, into law. This requires schools to develop comprehensive counseling plans allowing counselors to spend 90 percent of their time with students rather than administrative duties. It also requires districts to post their plans online.

The law is designed to give districts a foundation for what counseling services should look like for different grade levels, management of the counselors' time and accountability. Compliance will not be monitored by the Arkansas Department of Education until the 2020-21 academic year.

Visiting educators also spoke of a possible reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in order to recruit and retain teachers and administrators. Ray said they want to ensure incentives and budgeted funds remain available from the federal level.

Kirkendoll said another discussion topic was the success of career and technical education programs in the state, which need "incremental allocations in order to fund." These programs focus on giving students opportunities to explore career fields, such as manufacturing, computer science and healthcare, and earn certifications before high school graduation.

"We're there advocating for students, schools and those involved in education," Ray said. "We're trying to make sure that education funding from a national level isn't going to get cut."

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