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McHenry County school districts address social, emotional side of learning

Published: Monday, May 6, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, May 6, 2013 11:48 a.m. CDT

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Anxiety and trouble coping can grind some students’ learning to a stop.

The Opportunities to Achieve Success in School (OASIS) program at Hannah Beardsley Middle School in Crystal Lake puts an emphasis on addressing such issues as they come up.

At Hannah Beardsley, one social worker is responsible for the 1,000-plus students, meeting with students with individualized education plans, addressing crises as they come up and referring parents to outside services if the school can’t meet the needs.

School psychologists tend to focus on assessing the needs of students, be they social, emotional or caused by a learning disability.

District 155 is adding two full-time psychologists next year, so they’ll have the time to devote to other tasks and break away from that traditional role, said Mark Kovack, District 155’s director of student services.

“It’s very unpredictable from day-to-day,” said Julie Carnes, a social worker at District 155’s Crystal Lake South High School.

“For example, yesterday ... a student came in very concerned about her mother who has depression and her safety and well-being, so we had to do a well-being check. I also had a 18-year-old who had been kicked out of his home and had nowhere to go. This isn’t typical, but it shows how unpredictable it can be.”

Between the crises popping up, Carnes has group and individual sessions with students, meeting the needs outlined in some students’ individualized education plans, known as IEPs.

The state requires IEPs to set out, in minutes, the services each student must receive each week.

There is a perception that students with IEPs have priority, but that’s not true, Kovack said, adding that some people aren’t aware that these resources are available and others are afraid of the stigma attached to accessing them.

The 14 students in the OASIS program share a social worker and psychologist. Depending on their strengths, they can be in general education classrooms or join their peers for lunch or extracurricular activities.

Each student in the program meets with the social worker, Todd Keesey, a minimum of two times a week.

“If a student has a difficult time working in groups or coping with transitions throughout the school day, they may need more support from the OASIS staff in the classroom,” Keesey said.

“A lot of our students are at grade level academically, but their challenges are more social-emotional throughout the school day. They need more of that counseling support, the processing, maybe sensory breaks throughout the day, as well,” he said.

The program, which has been in place for several years, helps drive down the student-to-professional ratio, Superintendent Donn Mendoza said, adding that declining enrollment has opened up space for these types of programs.

Smaller districts sometimes make do with part-time social workers or share them with other districts. At Riley District 18, a one-school district with 200 kindergartners through eighth-graders in Marengo,  the social worker comes on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

“I think we would like to provide more services if possible,” Riley Principal Christine Conkling said, adding that while some issues do come up, it’s not enough where she worries about how to deal with them.

When the social worker isn’t available, Conkling, who was previously a teacher, works with the student.

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