OKC VeloCity | EmbraceOKC meets increased needs in Oklahoma City school district

EmbraceOKC meets increased needs in Oklahoma City school district

By Kaylee McDaniel / Inside OKC / September 14, 2020

As students resumed their education at Oklahoma City Public Schools last month, school officials met with more than just the typical back-to-school needs of their student population. In addition to managing the challenges of an online learning experience, studies indicate that the pandemic will have an impact on the mental and emotional health of students.

A recent report from the Oklahoma-based Healthy Minds Policy Initiative projects that childhood mental health needs will increase substantially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, as many as 30 percent of children involved in quarantines may experience post-traumatic stress disorder, a rate that is seven times higher than that of children who do not experience quarantine.

“Under normal circumstances, we know many of our students face challenges in their personal and family lives,” Dr. McDaniel said. “For some, their friends and teachers at school are the only support system they have. Since they have been away from school since mid-March, we must step up our game and provide them with the emotional support they need to return to learning.”

The behavioral health impact of COVID-19 coupled with findings from the National Survey of Children’s Health that Oklahoma children already suffer more trauma than those in any other state, underscore the critical need for school-based mental health support throughout Oklahoma City Public Schools.

Fortunately, the district began implementing a robust mental and emotional health plan called EmbraceOKC last year. EmbraceOKC is a collaborative initiative of the Oklahoma City Public Schools Compact, which is a group of community partners including Oklahoma City Public Schools, Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools, United Way of Central Oklahoma and the City of Oklahoma City.

In the year since its launch, the district has already been able to make evidence-based changes to help meet the specific needs of the district as identified by the Oklahoma Prevention Needs Assessment. Results of the survey identified three priority areas for planning and coordination of prevention and intervention services: substance use, high-risk behaviors; and psychological distress.

The district hired Director of Mental Health Dr. Kenneth Elliot to coordinate student support throughout the district, and as part of the district’s Pathway to Greatness plan, OKCPS has a standard of one counselor for every school. These counselors are providing online support for students through classes on the power of self-talk, compassion and empathy.

The district also launched a phone line, 587-FEEL, to connect students, families and caregivers with a licensed counselor or social worker. And as teachers return to the classroom in an online setting, EmbraceOKC is providing evidence-based training to teachers and support staff to help them identify behavioral health issues so they can intervene and connect the student and family with support services. In addition, EmbraceOKC will provide for the implementation of social and emotional learning programs to support and strengthen well-being among students and educators.

“Over the summer, we began staff training in various prevention strategies including behavioral health first aid, trauma awareness and intervention,” said Dr. McDaniel. “With our plan to resume school virtually for the first nine weeks, we are working hard to ensure we can address students’ mental, social and emotional health through our remote and online learning plans.”

As a program of the OKC Schools Compact, EmbraceOKC is supported in part by the foundations and individuals that believe in the effort’s mission to improve the mental and emotional health of every Oklahoma City Public Schools student. In August, Sarkeys Foundation announced that it will award $400,000 toward the effort. In total, more than $2 million in monetary and in-kind donations has been pledged to the work of EmbraceOKC.

“Funding for EmbraceOKC and behavioral health support for our students is a critical need for our community,” said Debby Hampton, president and CEO of United Way of Central Oklahoma, which is administering funding for EmbraceOKC. “We commend the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board of Education for leading the way on this initiative, as well as the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber and other community partners for their generous support. Our community and the well-being of its children will be forever improved due to this collaborative effort.”

Stay updated on the work of EmbraceOKC at EmbraceOKC.org. To make a donation to EmbraceOKC, text Embrace to 40403 or call United Way of Central Oklahoma at 405-236-8441.

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