Seeking a healthy start: Stonington welcomes students back with new health centers | Stonington

STONINGTON — Connecting with the community and building strong relationships with families has always been a critical component of educational success in Stonington. In recent years, it has included an added focus on providing mental health services for students and families.

With new behavioral and medical centers set to open at Stonington High School and the West Vine Street School on the first day of school on Tuesday, Superintendent of Schools Mary Anne Butler said the mental health and well-being of students and access for all once again remain a priority during the 2023-24 school year.

Officials hope that the new centers will not only aid in providing better and more direct local options but will also aid to keep students in the classroom and address a growing problem with attendance that has plagued both the district and schools nationwide since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This will be a huge component in helping students not miss time in the classroom,” Butler said. “In previous years, for example, a student would need to be sent home and schedule an appointment with a doctor in order to address something like strep throat. Now the student can be swabbed right at the school, and treatment given right away.”

The district came to a partnership agreement with Child and Family Services, which will provide the professional therapists for the behavioral health component, last year to expand existing services in the district. Stonington Middle School already had an established behavioral health partnership that has remained in operation on-site since the two middle schools merged.

The district had also  had a partnership at Pawcatuck Middle School prior to the merger.

Butler and Stonington High School Principal Alicia Dawe said that in some cases, the change in availability could mean as many as three additional days of instruction time. For a district that has spent the past year seeking to combat a drastic rise in absenteeism, it marks a possible turning point.

Prior to the pandemic, the average number of student absences and those meeting the definition of “chronic absentees” began to tick up from a low of 5%. When students returned to the classroom following pandemic distance learning, however, the figures skyrocketed, with Mystic Middle School ending the previous school year at a 14% rate — and Stonington High School’s rate neared 15%.

Dawe said not only will it keep students in the classroom, but will also serve an important role in providing the district with services to meet a growing need that had been exposed by the pandemic.

“Students no longer have to stay home for some illnesses, and for other families, this will prevent needing to remove students from school for therapy sessions while also making it much easier for families to find reliable services,” she said.

Staff at the West Vine Street School, where the district will open Tuesday as the reigning Connecticut Association of Schools Elementary School of the Year, said last week that the health center is just one of several ways that the school is seeking to establish deeper connections with the community.

For the first time this year, all before- and after-school activities through the district will be available free to all students, thanks in part to a state Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Fund (ESSER) grant. The $242,000 in funding was acquired with direction and assistance from Finance Director Alisha Stripling.

The grant awarded to Stonington, one of 23 given to districts throughout the state, was the second-highest total funding given to any project and was just $500 short of the highest overall award. The program will operate independent of local taxpayer funding and will not require use of any funds from the school’s annual operating budget, Butler and Stripling both said.

“The program was in place for a few months at the end of last school year, and we saw a significant number of students and families who took advantage of the opportunity,” Butler said. “We are continuing to apply for supplemental grants and are hopeful that we could possibly acquire enough funding to keep it going for two or three more years.”

Grant funding and community partnerships have also helped expand opportunities at the high school, Dawe said, with the partnership with the Home Builders Institute now entering its second year. The program was so popular in its first year that many students had to be turned away because space for the course filled quickly.

“HBI is a highly sought-after class, and we are excited to be able to expand opportunities in the second year,” Dawe said. “Students last year were able to partner with Mystic Seaport and work in the community. This year, we will have 18 skilled tradesmen coming into the classroom in order to teach the students more directly.”

New start, end times

Another new aspect of the 2023-24 school year is the addition of 15 minutes of instruction time in the classroom.

Butler said the additional instruction time was the result of a new teacher contract, which expanded time during the day. She said the changes include expanding the day at schools and changing both start and dismissal times in order to cause the least impact to schedules.

“We tried to split it as evenly as we could, with five minutes in the morning and ten in the afternoon, to prevent much impact to sleep and so that both students and families could stay on schedule and keep their daily routines,” Butler said.

With the new schedule, Stonington High will now begin at 7:25 a.m. and dismiss at 2:10 p.m., or 10:45 a.m. on half-days; Stonington Middle will begin at 8:05 a.m. and dismiss at 2:50 p.m., or 11:25 on half-days; and the West Vine Street and Deans Mill elementary schools will begin classes at 8:45 a.m. and dismiss at 3:30 p.m. or 12:10 a.m. on half days.

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