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Jackson County adopts new program to address student mental health needs

By Kristin Fox

Meeting the requirements of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s school mental health policy, the Jackson County Board of Education adopted a new curriculum for the upcoming school year aimed at strengthening students’ social skills. The board unanimously approved the curriculum adoption of the CharacterStrong program at their July regular meeting.

In June 2020, the North Carolina General Assembly voted to require that the state board of education adopt a school-based mental health policy mandating K-12 schools adopt and implement a school-based mental health plan that includes a mental health training program and a suicide risk referral protocol. 

CharacterStrong meets the requirements of the state mental health policy by strengthening school’s core curriculum for social emotional learning and character. This fall, Jackson County will begin participating in the program in 6th through 12th grades. The school system plans to include grades K-5th in the upcoming years.

The CharacterStrong program is a curriculum and professional development organization trying to create a better world through education. The mission of the program is to help schools more effectively teach strong character and social-emotional skills to their students.

As stated in the CharacterStrong marketing booklet, developers of the program believe that “every student in school wants to ‘Be Good,’ they just don’t always know what ‘good’ looks like. The program aims to provide curricula and trainings that allow educators to get back to the core of teaching – teaching young people and not just young test takers, teaching the whole child.”

“If we only teach with a focus on end of year test scores, research shows we are giving students 30-50 percent of what they need to be successful in today’s world. Young people today need more support developing emotional regulation, coping skills, and mindfulness. As anxiety increases, empathy decreases. Students need to be taught empathy, kindness, and character.”

The goal of CharacterStrong is to create schools that are focused on engagement, well-being and belonging. The program provides research-based Pre-K through 12th grade social and emotional learning curricula and professional learning services that positively impact lives. The curricula and professional learning are grounded in research and focused on fostering the whole child with lessons that teach social emotional learning and character, side-by-side.

Character development education involves developing thoughtful, healthy, and kind human beings formed by our personal values and choices. Social and emotional learning competencies include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

According to their website, CharacterStrong provides “the tools educators deserve, to give students what they need” and is a “holistic approach for sustainable school culture change.” 

“CharacterStrong has the power to change adults, students and culture,” said Dr. Sara Johnson, a school superintendent quoted in the CharacterStrong booklet. “I believe every district needs the strength CharacterStrong brings to the system; It is the foundational work upon which all other work can be built.”

The secondary curriculum for grades 6th-8th consists of 35 lessons and for grades 9th-12th high school 25 lessons. Each lesson is designed to be delivered with minimal to no preparation and no supplies are needed besides pen & paper and students’ computers.  Average delivery time for each lesson is about 30 minutes per week with flexibility to adapt a variety of timing needs based on the school’s master schedule and how they fit in there. 

The secondary curriculum is designed around three outcomes — well-being, belonging and engagement using five primary social emotional and character “ingredients” to get there. Those “ingredients” include emotional understanding, empathy and compassion, values and purpose, goals and habits, and leadership and teamwork. These “ingredients” build on the goal of being good people.

Each lesson features a community building activity with interactive content to challenge students to go out into the community and practice what they’ve learned at school.

The program also includes supplemental materials that allow students to share with families what they’ve learned at school, enriching the partnership between students, schools, and families.

 Staff will also have access to supplemental materials that can be used beyond the general classroom for intervention when needed.

The program will cost the Jackson County School system a one-time fee of $29,585. Professional development, which includes two face-to-face training sessions, will cost an additional $10,5000. One of the training sessions has been scheduled for one of the teachers’ workdays this month, so the schools will be ready to implement the program when school starts.

“I know the community and particularly I, two years ago would not have felt good about this; when I was growing up, I didn’t have access to social media and so many people speaking into my life,” said Board Member Kim Moore. “Now I do think we need to do something extra to try to help the kids, because we’re combating everything they’re getting from social media. I looked through this carefully taking a lot of time to read it, and I am excited about it.”

“I think it is feasible for our teachers to implement the CharacterStrong program without it taking too much time from an already impressive schedule,” said Superintendent Dana Ayers. “I think it will be a great opportunity for our students and teachers.”

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