Chatham weighs mental health needs of younger students

CHATHAM–At last week’s school board meeting members discussed concerns regarding the mental health of the district’s youngest students.

Kristen Reno, principal of the Mary E. Dardess Elementary School (MED), mentioned that the school has begun having a “mindfulness” session at the beginning of the school day, in which children are guided through meditation practices in an attempt to help them overcome stress and improve focus throughout their day.

In response board member David O’Conner expressed concern that the district does not have a strong plan in place to ensure the mental wellbeing of students, citing a study that one-in-five children are going through anxiety or depression issues. This report, from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, states that these numbers are applicable to children from age 3 through 17, and have a “diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral disorder in a given year.”

But Muriel Faxon, vice president of the board said, “I think [the schools] are doing more than we give them credit for.”

District Superintendent Sal DeAngelo added later that the mental health of Chatham students is a top priority for everyone at Chatham School District, and mentioned that 13 administrators will be going for training through the Mental Health First Aid program in February, to learn how to serve students better in terms of ensuring their mental wellbeing.

Dr. DeAngelo commented on the difficulties children face while struggling with problems related to depression and anxiety, saying that this is the number-one concern of superintendents around the state.

“I haven’t seen a concern rise above others so quickly in such a short period of time,” Dr. DeAngelo said.

Also at the December 12 Board of Education meeting Lucas Christensen, the administrator for educational services, gave a presentation to the board regarding what would be required of the school district to implement universal pre-kindergarten (pre-K).

Chatham has offered a preschool program for the past three years, which is currently at full capacity. Separately, Chatham also houses a Head Start program at MED, but Head Start’s curriculum is not the same as Chatham’s preschool program, as it is run by its own organization.

Universal pre-K would resolve these issue through a state-run and state-regulated program that would ultimately make it possible for more children to attend preschool without excluding some children, like those who currently are not eligible based on family income.

The presentation by Mr. Christensen intended to give the board information on the topic of Universal pre-K and the board did not make any decisions about the program at the meeting.

The next Board of Education meeting will take place January 9 at 6 p.m. in the high school library. All are welcome to attend.

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