BERLIN - Carlos Fontes first attempted suicide when he was 7 years old, then tried again nine years later, in 2017, while attending Berlin High School.
After growing up suffering from depression and with his emotions bottled up, the high school junior told a February Board of Education public hearing that he is now genuinely happy - all because of a special program at the school: Effective School Solutions.
“Without ESS, without this outlet, the people in the group wouldn’t be the same,” said Fontes. “ESS has changed my life and for the first time in my life I am happy. I am genuinely happy.
“I need ESS,” he continued. “I am speaking for everyone in the group that, without ESS, our lives would be very different.”
ESS is a program helps students with school avoidance, depression and anxiety issues.
It was brought to the district two years ago after Director of Pupil Personnel Services Linda Holian, who oversees special education, and former School Superintendent David Erwin received some promotional literature in the mail.
The two put the mailer off to the side, Holian said, but then decided to check it out by taking a trip to Madison, one of four districts in the state using the program at the time.
About 10 districts in the state now use the program, and more are looking to get involved, Holian said, adding that she wants to dispel some of the rumors about the program and its value.
“It is a more cost-effective program and services are a lot better than out of district,” said Holian.
The program works by having two clinicians at the school to treat nine to 11 students, each.
In Berlin, one group consists of fully enrolled special education students who have defiance and other behavioral issues. The other group is made up of students who attend regular classes, but have psychological issues including depression and anxiety.
At its most basic level, all 19 students will have group therapy every day and individual counseling once a week, all at the high school. Keeping the students at the high school avoids having them go to a hospital-based program outside the school district, and allows the clinicians to keep close contact with teachers, administrators and parents.
“The ESS clinicians are constantly collaborating with the administrators, the teachers, the staff. We’re all on the same page,” said Holian. “If we didn’t have ESS, even my current psychologist and social worker ... they would spend so many extra hours on the phone, trying to find out what’s going on, and they may not even be on the same page as us. The parents and the students are getting separate messages.”
School social workers will have about 35 students to a caseload and school counselors will have about 200, as those students’ needs aren’t as intensive as those in ESS, Holian said.
“To me, it’s more fragmented and the progress for students is going to take that much longer,” she added of not having ESS.
But ESS will also provide a lunch period separate from the rest of the school’s students, as well as immediate crisis/classroom intervention and home visits for school avoidance issues, Holian explained.
“(The clinicians) will pull them out of the class, do a quick session, and say ‘OK, let’s get you back in the class,’ ” said Holian, adding the clinicians won’t necessarily baby the students.
“Sometimes, they’re successful in getting back in the class for that period, or they’ll stay with them for that period, but they’re not sending them down to guidance with no one really checking in with them, like in the past.”
With the immediate help, it’s better than having a student go to school then leave midway through the day for out-of-district therapy and return at the end, Holian said.
ESS also provides help to the parents of the students enrolled in the program. Family group therapy and a support group in which the parents reach out to each other on issues that may be arising, are also offered.
“I can tell you for an out-of-district placement, those two things don’t happen,” said Holian. “The parent family support group doesn’t happen, the family sessions don’t happen and daily (student) group doesn’t happen. They usually get (group) once a week, and individual once a week, but not daily group.”
“It puts them with their peers,” added Holian, while an outpatient program might put the students in with strangers from other districts.
“The way we were doing it before was piecemeal and they weren’t getting back to their peers, who could be a support system. They were really isolated. They weren’t really connected, she said.
Holian’s desire to dispel negative rumors comes as ESS is on the chopping block for the coming school year after two budget rejections by town voters at referendum. Middle school sports and elementary school art and music are also threatened with deep cuts or elimination, and imposition of sports and parks fees is being discussed.
The ESS program, costing about $275,000, was previously funded through leftover grant money, but was added to the school’s operating budget request, said school board President Matt Tencza.
Mayor Mark Kaczynski said he supports the program. Given the the tough fiscal times, he said not filling administrative positions such as athletic director might be a way to save money without affecting programs.
Sam Lomaglio, chairman of the finance board, which makes budget recommendations to the council, said he also backs ESS and wants to add funding to the education budget so student programs aren’t impacted.
At a February Board of Education meeting, ESS workers said about five students in the ESS program would need outplacement, which would cost about $400,000, including transportation and education costs.
Holian said bringing on two psychologists or social workers to help the students would save only $20,000 to $30,000 compared to the program,
But that savings doesn’t include money for a tutor or the time spent by ESS students who complete online coursework to make up for classes they missed by having to leave school for an out-of-district program, Holian said. School psychologists or social workers also just wouldn’t be as effective overall as the ESS clinicians, who push students to go to class, she added.
“ESS is a more clinical approach … whereas our school psychologist and social workers provide school-based counseling, school-based therapy,” she said, adding that students in the program could fall through the cracks and spend all day waiting in an office.
“These students that are really struggling with these needs, they really need a more clinical approach,” she said.
The Newington School district has visited Berlin to see how the program works, as they are considering adding it, Holian said.
Other parents of students in the program spoke at the public hearing at which Fuentes spoke. One of them was former Mayor Rachel Rochette, who also spoke at a Town Council meeting this year, advocating for the program.
“If there had been a program like ESS in Parkland, Florida, maybe 17 people wouldn’t have been killed,” she said, saying people believe mental issues contributed to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings.
“A lot of people get hung up on cost, because they see $275,000 for this program, but when you break it down, to me it’s a no-brainer,” said Holian, adding that some people who don’t have family members with such issues may not understand the importance and benefits of ESS fully.
“It’s a lot cheaper to have this program, and the services are a lot more in depth.”
Charles Paullin can be reached at 860-801-5074 or firstname.lastname@example.org.