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In Focus

A Team Effort: School-Based Mental Health Collaborations

By June 20, 2022June 28th, 2022Health Priorities

Students at Girard College have benefited from an innovative school-based mental health collaboration.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, about 80 percent of students at Girard College, a private five-day boarding school for motivated students from underserved communities, reported some level of trauma in their lives. Add in two years of hybrid learning, systemic racial injustice, and gaps in concrete solutions to address youth mental health, and it was clear that more support was needed.

In 2020, Girard College created the Achievement Team to better serve each of its approximately 300 students in grades 1-12. Uniting social workers, academic and college counselors, behavioral specialists, and a family engagement coordinator, the team works together to identify and remove barriers to academic, behavioral, and social-emotional growth.

Collaborating with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

Thanks to the vision of Independence Blue Cross Foundation (Foundation), we collaborated with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) to bring additional mental health resources to the school’s campus in North Philadelphia. A psychologist, psychiatrist, and social worker joined the Achievement Team and began making an immediate impact for students, families, and staff.

A key goal of this collaboration is to create a replicable model for bringing mental health services into schools in a sustainable way. During the first year of the collaboration, it became evident that the academic and social skills loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic had led to a near-universal need for student support. This realization, coupled with data collected from DESSA social-emotional learning assessments, will guide the expansion of the program in year two. 

Meeting Students Where They Are

A major benefit of the collaboration with CHOP is location. We are meeting the students and families where they are daily, in school. They build a trusting relationship with our teams because they see us in the dorms and classrooms. They are more willing to open up when they are struggling.

Having a telehealth component to the program was invaluable during the often-abrupt transitions between in-person and remote learning. Clinicians were able to continue with therapy uninterrupted even when students were learning from home.

Crisis Intervention and Health Equity

Access to high-quality health care, including mental health, has long been a struggle for communities of color or those with limited financial means. The strength of a school-based collaboration is more immediate crisis intervention, where students can be connected to a psychologist or psychiatrist without the tremendous delays that we see reported nationwide. By allocating resources to support health equity, the Foundation and CHOP are aligning with Girard’s mission to ensure that every child has the opportunity and means to succeed.

Trauma-Informed Training

To build the capacity for academic and residential staff to address students’ needs, the Achievement Team provides trauma-informed training to teachers and residential advisors. By cultivating the skills and tools needed to engage students through a trauma-informed lens, school leaders will be better able to implement restorative practices that promote healing and trust.

Family Engagement

Family engagement is crucial in the support of youth mental health. Having a committed liaison between the parent community and school administration on our team means that more families have been connected to the resources offered by CHOP’s mental health professionals. We have also collaborated with our parent group to host trainings on how they can support their students at home.

Our families have told us that this program has been life-changing for their children. Their children’s health is the most important thing in the world to them, and they are so glad that mental health is now the foundation for their children’s academic and social growth.

A Replicable Model

Children throughout our city and nation are experiencing mental health challenges more than ever before, and we need to get creative in how we respond to this generational crisis. By forming sustainable, mission-aligned collaborations with leading educational and medical facilities, schools can better meet the needs of students and families who have been historically marginalized from these critical resources.

With the continued support of Independence Blue Cross Foundation and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Girard College Achievement Team is leading the charge to bring innovative mental health programming to schools so that our children can grow and thrive.

Summer Sheridan-Zabre, LCSW

Summer Sheridan-Zabre, LCSW is the Director of Student Achievement at Girard College, providing supervision and leadership of the school-based mental health partnership with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

A native New Yorker, Summer served the Harlem community for 10 years as the founding school social worker at Harlem Link Charter School. She is also an adjunct adviser for the Fordham University School of Social Services.

Summer earned a Master of Social Work degree with a concentration in children and families from Fordham University and her B.S. in Social Work from Syracuse University. She lives in South Philadelphia with her family.