Scott Martin was not an enthusiastic student.
“I didn't enjoy it,” said Martin. “I don't want other kids to feel that way.”
Now superintendent of Bentworth School District, Martin is dedicated to ensuring every student knows his or her worth.
“Every student matters. Sometimes, in education, the focus is too narrow. The focus is just on education. Kids have other things going on at home; they need a place to feel safe.”
Early in his career, Martin taught students with mental health needs in North Carolina and West Virginia. He worked with students who were expected to perform well in school while dealing with major stressors in their lives. He saw that a key element was missing in their education.
“I would teach them subjects, but not what they really needed – how to control anger, social skills ... Once you get the behaviors and mental health issues under control, the academics come,” he said.
When he came to Bentworth, Martin wasted no time developing a program to reach students who “are often missed.”
Working with Centerville Clinics' Neil Forsythe and staff, Martin implemented a partial program for high school students in need of mental health services. The program worked so well that the district implemented an elementary program a few years later.
While partial programs exist in Bethlehem-Center School District and in Claysville's Transformation Learning School, Bentworth's program is open to students from any school district and provides classes for all education levels, from life skills to general education to gifted. Students in kindergarten through 12th grade get the time and level of mental health services they need while fulfilling their education requirements.
“We have students that go to (Mon Valley Career & Technology Center) a half-day, then get mental health services. We also have kids who may go out for AP chemistry, then come back, so it's very much a free-flow program,” Martin said.
Dr. William Law, child psychiatrist, meets with students and their guardians and manages their medications, if needed, while Forsythe and other staff members provide counseling and therapeutic sessions.
“This little endeavor here is where mental health and education collide,” Forsythe said.
Forging strong relationships with parents, teachers and other school districts, and creative problem solving, have been instrumental in the program's success, Martin and Forsythe agree.
“There's a lot of collaboration between school districts. If everyone is pulling for that student, they're going to be successful,” Martin said. “Teachers really do a good job of supporting the students and the Centerville Clinics team – some of these students' issues result in academic issues. They build that self-esteem so (students) can do it on their own the next time.”
The program is licensed for 15 elementary students and 20 high school students, with one staff member for every five students.
Both the elementary and high school classrooms have separate entrances and restrooms for students. In addition, students who have anxiety can get their meals from the cafeteria or switch classes before general education students.
“It makes a big difference,” Martin said. “If I'm anxious walking to class, when I get to class, I'm out of sorts.”
Forsythe agreed making adjustments that may seem minor to adults has a big impact.
“There are little things like that – their own restroom, access to the nurse and lunchroom – little things like that. We can limit the amount of bad stimuli. Our lockers are right there, districts drop off kids right to our entrance,” Forsythe said.
Staff members are also creative with education requirements.
One student, Martin recalled, was very intelligent, but his anxiety prevented him from functioning in a regular class setting.
“He was in Spanish, and halfway through, he said, 'It's too much.' He literally could not get out the door. He was frozen.”
To get full credit, he was enrolled in an online Spanish class.
“We really get creative and see, what does the student need? The student, probably one of the smartest students in any building in the area – can he do the work? Absolutely. But it's getting him to sit down and do the work. So we've been able to put him in some courses like that,” Martin said. “We're very creative in those types of things.”
Another deviation from typical partial programs is that students receive the amount of mental health services they need. So, if a student comes from a residential facility, he may receive a full day of mental health services, but as he progresses, the time spent there declines to as little as 45 minutes a day.
“There is not one track for students. I doubt any two students have the same schedule,” Martin said. “And by the end of last school year, we had no student (receiving mental health services) full time.”
Funded partially by Washington County, the cost to Bentworth to run the program was to set up the classrooms and employ emotional support room staff. The costs for other districts to send their students to the program is reasonable, Martin said.
If there are 20 students in the program, the school district is charged one-20th of the cost. They are not charged for general education classes.
Megan Van Fossan, director of special education at McGuffey School District, said the program is very cost-effective for districts. A Washington County superintendent who had a student in the program was shocked to see the charge was under $7,000, she said.
“They are happy to open this bill,” she said of administrators.
“The program works. Kids don't need six hours. They're going out to biology, they're doing better, they need less services. They're building relationships, they're doing great,” Forsythe said. “How does that work for (Centerville)? It doesn't work for us, but we find a way because it's the best model.”
The program is about “serving kids, not about putting money in a pocket,” Martin said.
“These students are so resilient, learning how to deal with all of these things while getting an education. Some of them are under a tremendous amount of stress,” he continued. “It's near and dear to my heart. They are so successful. We've had students who only went to school five days in a year. Now maybe they missed 30 days. That's a success – not for everybody, but for that individual student. We need to look at each individual child. Every student needs to experience success.
“I want to provide a place for kids to want to share and feel positive about themselves. This type of program addresses that,” Martin said. “I think we are making a difference.”