Spotlighting middle school student support teams
Meet the amazing professionals working to give students and their families the tools they need to succeed beyond the classroom.
Schools in District 191 prioritize supporting each student’s social, emotional, mental and physical health on a daily basis so that students have all the tools they need to succeed. Student Support Teams made up of social workers, behavior analysts, psychologists, nurses, counselors, and cultural liaisons work to identify and address students’ needs, provide support and build valuable relationships with families. Their work is an essential part of what we do in One91.
Students at Eagle Ridge and Nicollet Middle Schools are getting one-on-one and small group support from a team that is focused on more than just academic success. Middle school is a time of personal transition. Students face many changes and often have to make adjustments as they leave elementary school and begin to prepare for the independence and options that await them in high school. The additional social and emotional support provided by the Middle School Student Support Teams can be a difference-maker for students when it comes to setting them up for future success.
It’s not all ice packs and bandaids! School nurses teach one-on-one.
The goal of any school nurse is to keep students feeling healthy so they can remain in class. Healthy learners can better absorb information in the classroom and remain focused on their work, but more than that, students need to know how to take care of themselves and their bodies. School nurses like Emily Mjelleli of Nicollet Middle School aren’t only triaging issues and getting office visits, they are teaching students one-on-one about their own bodies and health.
“Teaching is always a part of nursing, whether it’s about the medication or conditions,” said Mjelleli. “I tailor that teaching to each situation to give kids the lifelong basics that they need to know into adulthood. I always explain what I am doing and why I am doing it. I think it’s important to know that school nurses are not just handing out ice packs and bandaids, they're digging deeper into what’s going on with each child.”
For some students, the school nurse may be their only contact with a healthcare provider. School nurses can provide a vast amount of information and resources to students and their families, whether it’s tools to monitor blood sugar levels for diabetics, or providing vision screenings and vouchers for glasses from the local Lions Club. There are also connections with dental care clinics and other resources to remove barriers and encourage access.
No two days are the same for a school nurse. There are emails, phone calls from parents and teachers, office visits and checking in on students with a variety of conditions to make sure they are feeling well. There is also lots of documentation to do as nurses keep track of everything that they do. This data not only keeps track of the day-to-day but can help to paint an overall snapshot of student health in the building. Nurses also collaborate with the rest of the support teams and teachers to follow up on any student concerns.
“I feel that this role is important because I am one piece of the puzzle in caring for the whole child,” said Mjelleli. “Having mental health and social services in school is essential because students may not be able to afford them elsewhere. Middle school students are great because you can teach them and they listen. I feel like I am making a difference and that the students are benefiting from me caring for them.”
Speaking a common language. Cultural liaisons are a bridge between home and school.
For families who are either new to the country or who do not speak English, having their children start school can be extremely difficult. Thankfully for families in District 191, some incredible people are there to help. Cultural liaisons are available for Native American families, Spanish-speaking families, Somali families, and more to serve as a partner and a resource to support a variety of needs.
Mary Lopez has been in the district for 16 years as a cultural liaison, connecting with students and their families who speak Spanish as their primary language. She is one of 13 liaisons in the district who remove barriers in accessing resources and navigating the school system.
“We are the bridge for families,” said Lopez. “We want to empower parents to be strong advocates for their kids and help eliminate some of the barriers so every student can achieve the success they deserve.”
For many in the district, the team of cultural liaisons are their first contact with the schools. They are active partners with staff throughout the buildings to help with translation, cultural connections and also serve as a resource to connect families with community organizations and encourage participation in conferences and parent teacher organizations.
By serving as interpreters and translators, the liaison team is able to connect more members of the district community to important services and aspects of the school. Their role goes far beyond helping with enrollment forms or the many emails and appointments to answer questions from parents, students and staff. It’s really about building relationships of trust with the school community.
“Imagine how hard it is to navigate a school district if you are new to the country and don’t speak the language,” said Lopez. “The cultural liaisons are here to give a sense of relief and be an ally to support students. With new families, when they see someone that looks like them and speaks their language, you can see the joy on their faces. I want to give those students the same opportunities that other students have.”
Making sure that you have a good day at school. School counselors support students.
Today, school counselors do much more than talk to students a few times a year about possible career or college opportunities. They are making daily contact with students, mostly focused on three main areas: academic success, social and emotional well-being, and college and career readiness. For middle school students, having someone they can go to with problems that arise in and out of the classroom is hugely beneficial.
Nicollet School Counselor Katy Hemmah and Eagle Ridge Counselor Madison Thornton stay extremely busy. They provide academic counseling, help with scheduling, connect students with services and meet with students individually and in groups either to work on different skills or to address issues. Part of what a counselor does is simply to help students know “how to do school” with skills like goal setting, time management, and problem solving. They also help students to learn the skills that are an essential part of having good relationships with others.
“We try to help students manage their emotions and figure out who they are,” said Hemmah. “The biggest thing is building those positive peer relationships. School counselors are focused on the whole student and we want them all to be ready for school, but we also want them to be good people.”
Counselors meet with students, parents, teachers and the rest of the support team to collaborate on individual needs. Getting students ready to start middle school as fifth graders and also ready to enter high school as eighth graders provide a number of opportunities that can be supported by counselors.
“Middle school is a great age,” said Thornton. “Students are changing so rapidly at this point that you can help them change in positive ways. In middle school counseling, it’s giving them the chance to grow and change and it is a really cool time, it’s tumultuous but it’s a great opportunity.”
For counselors, the goal is to ultimately give students the tools they need to be able to advocate for themselves and navigate their lives. The school year starts with connecting with students to let them know how to ask for help when they need it. Like other support staff, counselors serve one grade level and half of another grade level, moving with the students each year so they can create stronger connections over time.
“We are short term support and we want to work with each student so they don’t need us all of the time, but become a self advocate and have the skills they need,” said Hemmah. “We don’t always know what supports students have at home and we know that in order to succeed they need to have those social and emotional skills.”
Middle school students are also going to counselors to help with conflict resolution, peer relationships and creating connections with others.
“We are seeing a lot of students who need to build skills on how to handle conflict and reconnect,” said Thornton. “It’s really clear that they just want to feel connected to one another but some struggle to know how to do that sometimes. The joy of my life is to be able to help them start to articulate those things and develop those skills.”
It’s the little successes that make it worthwhile. School social workers are a safety net.
The profession of social worker has a lot of different roles, but school social workers are very specialized in mental health and serve as a link between students, families, the community, teachers and school. These dedicated staff members don’t just provide resources and efforts for increasing attendance, they work with students of all backgrounds and situations on a variety of topics including mental health, conflict resolution, academics and more.
Flexibility is definitely a requirement of being a school social worker. They also go through specialized training, often earning a master's degree and being clinically trained in therapy, giving them additional skills. While they don’t provide therapy themselves, they do connect students with grant-based therapy options that take place in the school which removes barriers to travel and cost. School Social Worker Kara Fahey helps students at Nicollet Middle School and works closely with her grade level team supporting a caseload of students.
“Social work is interesting because you can do so many different things,” said Fahey. “Being in a school is amazing because it’s a place where young people are where you can meet them and serve their needs. We are specialists in mental health, but some students just need extra support in conflict resolution or other social or academic skills.”
School social workers work with a wide variety of students, whether they just need some academic or social support or if they are highly mobile, experiencing homelessness or require more intensive support. They collaborate with staff and also have a request form available to students who want to use their resources.
Ultimately, the role of a school social worker is helping students figure out the essential parts of being a good student and a good person while building strong relationships with students and families.
“It’s vital that we are here noticing, teaching and supporting so students can go through life and succeed,” said Fahey. “We are able to build relationships and develop consistency so they can get a head start on some issues. Middle school is a fun age developmentally and it’s a really influential age. Those moments when you see students really understand a skill that you have been working on with them, that’s the payoff!”
Middle schoolers may not always be the most expressive when it comes to gratitude, but all of the members of the support team say that there are moments when they know they have made a difference. Whether it’s a diabetic student thanking a school nurse for that juicebox that prevented their blood sugar from bottoming out, a family that is new to the country having someone to talk to in their own language, or seeing students work out a conflict and truly understand the skills that they have been working on, it’s a fulfilling experience for members of the One91 Student Support Teams.