Dr. Carolyn Patton, the director of special services to Benicia Unified School District, presented an update to the school board on the work being done to create Safe and Welcoming Schools at Thursday’s meeting. Three programs were highlighted, which fit in with Superintendent Charles Young’s goal of creating and maintaining schools that were safe and welcoming.
The three programs that were discussed were Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) at the elementary schools, the Second Step and Special Friends Supports program also at the elementary schools and the Sources of Strength program at Benicia High School.
“Just a disclaimer: these are not all of the things we are doing toward these goals, so I don’t want you to think this is it,” Patton said.
Patton then talked about about the goals of PBIS, which academically covers topics like what students are expected to learn, how those lessons should be taught, what faculty should do if students do not learn it and how they should intervene. As Patton noted, those same topics could be applied at the social and emotional level. She then allowed Benicia Middle School teacher Faith Shaw, Liberty High School Principal Joann Severson and Robert Semple Elementary School Principal Christina Moore go over what their schools were doing in their PBIS training.
“It really is about teaching our kids behavioral expectations,” Patton said. “Just like we don’t expect kids coming into school knowing how to read, we shouldn’t expect them to come into school with the same behavioral expectations or understanding. We really need to teach those things and help reinforce them in a positive way.”
Next to present was BUSD psychologist Kelli Leiner who talked about the Special Friends and Second Step programs at the elementary schools. Special Friends is an early mental health intervention program in which students and specially trained aides interact one-on-one in a playroom.
“Students who are identified for this program are usually demonstrating some mild to moderate adjustment issues,” Leiner said. “There could be anything from being new to the school to a loss.”
Second Step is a social skills program, usually consisting of groups of two to four students. Leiner then introduced Joan Burnett, a Special Friends aide at Robert Semple, who then introduced three students who had participated in the program.
Patton then introduced Mental Health Coordinator Jessica Garcia to talk about a new program at Benicia High called Sources of Strength.
Sources of Strength is a suicide prevention program consisting of 65 students and 11 faculty members including Garcia and three of the school’s counselors. The group meets every other week in peer groups to foster a sense of positivity for students dealing with anxiety or depression. The idea for the program was brought forth by Barbara Gervase, the mother of 16-year-old Benicia High student Kyle Hyland who died by suicide in 2014.
“I’m very happy that you agreed to finally bring that program to BHS,” Gervase said in a public comment before the presentation. “From what I’ve heard, it’s been going wonderfully well. One of the things that I’m asking from you is that if this program is working so well, then we need to make an effort to bring it to more kids at BHS because it’s limited.”
Gervase also recommended bringing the program to Benicia Middle School, as students tend to begin exhibiting mental health issues at the middle school level.
To demonstrate what students were learning, sophomore Amaya Clark talked about a 21-day challenge in which students were given journals to write about three things they were grateful for.
“I noticed for the first day I kind of did broad things,” she said. “By the fourth day, I had to really think about things I was grateful and appreciative for, and I had to be more specific because I would have ran out of things. It just made me have an open mind and think ‘Wow, I really am grateful for this.’ It was a really good idea.”
The board’s trustees praised the presentation.
“This is probably the best presentation I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been on the board 12 years,” Andre Stewart said.
Stewart said he has hired interns who did not know how to talk to adults.
“This first thing you’re teaching them (PBIS) will teach them how to have presence, how to present themselves and how to talk to adults,” he said.
Stewart made the recommendation that the district work to provide more counseling support by hiring more staff. Currently, Benicia High has three counselors- Justin Keppel, Megan Guenther and Kathleen Wallace- to serve the needs of 1,700 students, which does not meet the California Department of Education’s recommended ratio.
“I think you will be pleased with the recommendations coming forward in the LCAP,” Patton said.
In other business, the board voted to set the retention for Benicia High’s stadium renovation project at 10 percent because the project is substantially complex, and Young formally introduced Damian Scott as the new principal of Benicia Middle School.