Mental health and community leaders greeted Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Education Joy Hofmeister at Family & Children’s Services on August 1. This summer, educators from the across the state met for professional development. The most popular discussion? How to teach the traumatized child.
School districts have not been funded to provide mental health care. Hofmeister said, “It is a sad state to realize that we don’t have the funding that our kids deserve and need. Without private and public partnerships, we aren’t going to be able to meet the needs of kids.” The conversation quickly turned to the importance of community partnerships for supporting under-resourced schools and children.
The stakes are high for Oklahoma children: Approximately 25% suffer from mental health disorders. The harsh truth is that Oklahoma’s children rank the highest in the country for having the most multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACES). ACES are traumatic events that range from poverty, physical, emotional or sexual abuse to parental divorce or parental incarceration. To make matters worse, Oklahoma leads the nation in cuts to K-12 education with a reduction of state aid 26.9 percent per student since 2008. This lack of funding, low pay, and teachers feeling unwanted have driven many experienced professionals out of the classroom and out Oklahoma. Last year, 52,350 students were taught by an emergency certified teacher.
Trauma and toxic stress undermine a child’s ability to learn, form relationships, and function in the classroom. Many children erupt at the smallest provocation or withdraw and are sad. This fact and the lack of teachers with classroom management experience exacerbate the problem.
F&CS CEO Gail Lapidus said, “Children bring all of their emotional turmoil to school. They walk in the room and teachers do not know what to do because they aren’t trained to be therapists or behavior managers.” Many children don’t get help. The few that do are often helped at school by a community professional with social-emotional learning and mental wellness expertise.
For over 65 years, F&CS has been working in Tulsa area schools and today F&CS partners with five Tulsa area school districts and every head start school site. Hofmeister said, “This is such an important partnership and one that is increasingly important as our state continues to grow and the children in our classrooms are increasingly diverse.”
While Oklahoma has immediate needs and lingering challenges the Oklahoma State Department of Education has built a plan based on a needs assessment for achieving academic excellence, building excellent educators and schools, and creating engaged communities.
Hofmeister said, “These goals are audacious and we can meet them, but it’s going to take an investment from the Legislature, and Oklahomans are going to have to demand that.”