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Addressing Cleveland students' mental health needs at a CMSD Say Yes school

Say Yes Cleveland Family Support Specialist Eric Harper works to address the needs of students and their families at Louis Agassiz Elementary School.
Jenny Hamel
Ideastream Public Media
Say Yes Cleveland Family Support Specialist Eric Harper works to address the needs of students and their families at Louis Agassiz Elementary School.

After nearly a year of remote learning, students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District are back in school buildings learning in the classroom. But, they’ve brought different challenges back with them.  

The Say Yes Cleveland family support specialists at 69 schools are addressing everyday needs, but they’re also addressing mental health issues. Since the start of the school year, the specialists have made over 1,600 mental health referrals, which means they’re either connecting students to the in-house therapist or with an agency that provides counseling and therapy. 

Eric Harper is the family support specialist assigned to Louis Agassiz Elementary School in Cleveland’s West Boulevard neighborhood. He has an office set up in the corner of an otherwise unused classroom on the bottom floor. Most of the desks have chairs stacked on them and on one desk sits a pile of new winter jackets.  

Eric Harper has a storage closet full of supplies for students including boxes of jackets, backpacks, shoes and toiletries
Jenny Hamel
Ideastream Public Media
Eric Harper has a storage closet full of supplies for students including boxes of jackets, backpacks, shoes and toiletries.

Harper’s job as a Say Yes Cleveland family support specialist is to connect the kindergarten through eighth graders at the school with any services they or their family needs. The point is to remove any barriers to succeeding in school.  

Harper started the job last year when classes were mostly remote and spent a lot of his time making home visits. Harper says it’s a lot easier to help the kids now when everyone is in the same building every day.

“The students and the teachers have direct access to one another and how I receive a lot of my information in relation to a student or family's needs is directly from the teacher,” Harper said.

But it’s also about his relationship with the students, he adds.

“Once they’re more comfortable, when they're seeing me on a regular basis, it makes it a lot easier for them to come and talk to me and feel comfortable with sharing information,” Harper said.

He gets a lot of information about his students from a computer program called PPS created by the national group Say Yes to Education.

When you log onto the home page, the program lists students with “red flags,” meaning an issue that needs to be addressed.  Some of the information comes from a survey filled out by the students’ parents or guardians, some come from the teachers or a staff member.

“These are the alerts. These are the student names,” Harper explained, pointing to his computer. “And then, it also expands to show you what the red flag concerns are. So, for this student in particular, they have a medical concern red flag and they have a mental health concern red flag,” Harper said.

He runs down the list and pulls a student with a red flag from her class to have an honest conversation about how she’s doing.

“But I just needed to speak with you to see if I can help you in any way. As far as your mental health, are you having any thoughts that worry you at all. Anything about school or at home?” Harper asked the eighth grader.

“No, not at all,” the she tells him, assuring Harper that emotionally and mentally she’s doing fine.

But Harper says this year he’s seeing a lot of students struggling with depressive symptoms and anxiety.  And he says the pandemic has only exacerbated issues at home.

“It's hard for a student to want to come into school if they don't have working water, they couldn't take a shower that day. It's difficult for a student to concentrate in class when they're worried about not having enough food at home, or even if they're going to have a place to live when they get out of school that day,” Harper said. “A lot of the children don't say directly what it is that they're experiencing.”

Second to needing help for mental health issues, Harper says students at Louis Agassiz need supplies, especially jackets.

“A lot of our children don't have the things that they need for the weather. You're finding that a lot. You're seeing a lot of children come to school with just a sweatshirt on and they don't, you know, ‘I don't have a coat. My mom can’t afford it,’” Harper said.

He's been giving out a lot of winter coats. He also says the kids have vision needs. So, he’s been connecting students with optometrists and eyeglass providers.

Regardless of the pandemic, Harper says the demand to meet students’ basic needs is always constant. 

Say Yes Cleveland plans to add 35 more specialists to meet those needs on every CMSD school campus next year. 

Copyright 2022 WCPN. To see more, visit WCPN.

Jenny Hamel is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media and calls the eastside of Cleveland home. Prior to that, she was a reporter for KCRW, the NPR affiliate in Los Angeles, covering a range of issues from immigration to politics.