As the school year begins, officials in the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District are going beyond the traditional school counselors and psychologists to ensure students’ well-being.
The district’s new wellness centers offer students a place to go after school for help with anything that might trouble them — from college preparedness to depression and anxiety.
“Kids and families don’t always have issues that occur between 7:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.,” Superintendent John DeTommaso said. “Sometimes things happen after that time period. We just wanted to be able to open our doors a little bit longer.”
The district has added a new guidance counselor in four of its schools, and a new psychologist at each of the three high schools — Calhoun, John F. Kennedy and Mepham — so there are two social workers and two psychologists at each high school.
“We think that one psychologist for these large buildings doesn’t cut it,” DeTommaso said. “I think we can do better by our psychologists having smaller case-loads as well.”
The wellness centers will not serve as crisis centers, DeTommaso stressed. However, the staff will be equipped to help with any sort of depression, anxiety or stress that a student might experience, and will give outside referrals.
“If a kid is in a full-blown crisis and they walk in, they’re going to be helped instantaneously,” DeTommaso said.
That help could not come at a more critical time for American teens, according to experts.
With the unprecedented level of connection and availability of information offered by smartphones and tablets also come new dangers and potentially volatile situations that can complicate the already difficult period of adolescence, said Eric Caballero, the district’s director of health and athletics
“When that communication is not positive, it creates a slew of other issues for us,” Caballero told the Herald last year, adding that “it’s hard enough being a kid, let alone navigating the hurdles of what social media means when you’re growing up.”
“The opening of a wellness center at the secondary school level is incredibly important, crucial and necessary for all of the travails of adolescents in today’s environment,” psychologist and Nassau Community College professor Dr. Bernard Katz told the Herald this summer. “Kids who have mental health issues, or anxiety, depression and self-esteem issues, are bombarded by all kinds of things and messages from the internet.”
DeTommaso said that the start of the wellness centers marks just another chapter in the district’s efforts to help students succeed “in this difficult, changing world.”
District officials were so excited about the new offering that they created a video trailer for the wellness centers, “Where Wellness Matters,” viewable on YouTube at https://bit.ly/2Q1rBjD.
Dr. Neil Testa, assistant principal at Calhoun, created the video. He is also in charge of the school’s wellness center and “an expert in tech,” DeTommaso said.
The video states that the district is “reinvesting in kids and families,” and that “they need us now more than ever.”
“I think this will really be the first step with what we do to really make kids aware that this is a place to go to when they’re in need,” DeTommaso said. “We’re pretty happy with it.”
A major part of the district’s message to students and parents, he said, is that someone is there to listen — even outside of the school day.
“We wanted it to be something that’s just part of the lexicon for kids and families,” he said. “They know that . . . someone’s going to be there. There’s going to be walk-ins, and kids might not have an appointment, because that’s not the way the real world in school works.”
The program will start in October, with the centers open in each high school once a week, and others opening in the middle schools in February. DeTommaso said that the district has budgeted for the wellness centers to be open an additional day each week, depending on interest.
“If we’re well, we’re going to be more successful,” he said. “We’re going to be happier. If that’s the case for our kids, they’re going to have this incredible opportunity that we have here to keep growing as people.”