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Preston Schools says state should help with alternative learning, student mental health

Dominion Post - 4/21/2019

April 21-- Apr. 21--KINGWOOD -- Mental health and alternative education are two of the biggest needs of schools, Preston County Schools officials told state elected officials last week.

The Preston Board of Education, Superintendent Steve Wotring and school staffer, met with Dels. Buck Jennings and Terri Sypolt, and Sens. Randy Smith and David Sypolt, to discuss legislation.

The school officials said there are many students, from pre-k up, who cannot function in regular classrooms, yet little funding to serve those students. Wotring said alternative learning centers are needed.

"That's what I think is reform for education is taking the system you have, working within the system to change what we're doing to meet the needs of our kids," Wotring said.

Assistant Superintendent Brad Martin said Preston schools has more nurses and guidance counselors than the state funds. Preston has 4,400 students in 10 schools and a combined 11.6 nurses and counselor positions are funded. Preston has 13 positions.

Preston High and West Preston are the only schools with full-time counselors.

It's not uncommon, Wotring said, for a child to pick up a computer and throw it. "You have to stop education at that point and get everybody safely out of the way, and then we have to restrain, possibly, this child. But it just impedes the whole process."

"It's an every other day basis," said Terra Alta/East Preston Principal Justin Hough. He and teachers have had chairs and books thrown at them. A student tried to break a window with a chair to escape the classroom.

"It's just become such the norm," Hough said. A former high school teacher for behavior disorder students, Hough said then he blamed elementary teachers for his students' problems. Now he realizes it is a lack of resources.

"I truly believe that if you did the proper reform ... you could eliminate so many of this early on," Hough said.

Instead of spending $35,000 on 100 kids for education savings accounts, use that money to put an aide with a student at a younger age.

"Part of these actions end up being [students'] frustrations," Hough said. "They're not getting any help from their parents at home. They're getting more and more behind. So now we've got this kid who is two years older, 50 pounds heavier, 4 inches taller, in a classroom with a bunch of little kids and has all these problems on top of it."

He praised the representatives for talking with those who work in the schools but said they should have done that before trying to reform education.

"I had a third grader tell me he was going to kill himself the other day," Hough said. "Had a plan laid out, exactly. Now why did he have this? ... And guess what I did not have in the building that day? I did not have a counselor."

So while he and teachers dealt with this, they had to, "pray and hope" the other 357 students were having a good day.

"It has to come down to an investment," Hough said. "You get us enough to get a few more counselors in this county, you're going to see a difference next year."

Jennings asked if counselors or social workers are needed? Wotring said the focus has to be on mental health. "That's huge."

Smith said the first meeting he attended with principals about education he left in tears at what children are going through. He introduced a bill to put a social worker in each pre-k through sixth school, but it ended up as only a pilot program.

Senator Sypolt asked how does CHIP work to meet these needs? Martin said they can make counseling appointments for children but can't force parents to follow through.

And, Hough said, mental health facilities are over burdened. Wotring said sometimes students are rejected by the facilities, "and they say -- the hospitals say -- they can't do anything with them, they've got to go back to the public school."

Some children need a separate setting early to try and build them, Wotring said. "By the time we get to ninth grade at the high school, those habits are so ingrained, we can't change it then," he said.

"That's what we're talking about is having an alternative setting for our most struggling kids, rather it be for drug addiction or severe behavior," Wotring said.

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