School avoidance isn't new, but with a little extra cash in the budget, the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District can finally put some money into addressing the problem. At a Feb. 27 study session, board members mulled the possibility of allocating quite a bit of the district's discretionary spending for the year — $500,000 — on a school avoidance program, described as an on-campus clinical program with academics for teens who are struggling with anxiety.
The school avoidance program is one of two high-cost proposals aimed at small groups of high-need students. District staff also proposed a $500,000 behavioral program for special needs students struggling to learn in a mainstream academic environment, and whose behavior is so disruptive that school staff have to spend an inordinate amount of time managing individual students. Both programs would help between 12 and 15 students each year.
Teens are definitely under more pressure to compete with one another and get into a high-ranking college than in previous years, said Associate Superintendent Brigitte Sarraf. That competition often means students feel the need to overload their schedule with five or six Advanced Placement and honors classes, on top of extracurricular activities and afterschool jobs. Such a heavy load of classwork is more than students can handle, and some kids react by just "shutting down."
"There's definitely an uptick in depression and anxiety, and that anxiety is often fueled by these unrealistic expectations that they put upon themselves," she said. "It's like a pressure cooker for some students."
School avoidance is distinctly different from normal truancy, said Susan Flatmo, the district's clinical services director. Students are missing out on class time because of "emotional strain," and there's usually a clear pattern of absences and tardies as students get overwhelmed. She said students will often tell her that anxiety about their academic achievement, and concerns about what other people think about them, are why they started avoiding school.
Flatmo has been hosting training classes to teach parents about what school avoidance is, and what's going on in their child biologically and psychologically when they struggle with emotional stress at school. Kids will say they have a stomach-ache or a headache and parents will think they're sick, Flatmo said, and while the physical symptoms of anxiety are real, parents need to rule out that there isn't something else going on.
The hope is that through working with parents, the district can minimize the amount of class time students miss, and ensure that teens have access to counseling and therapy on and off campus to manage academic pressure. The longer students stay away from school, Flatmo said, the more difficult it is for them to come back.
Therapists at the Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC), which provides mental health services for the district, have also noticed the increase in school avoidance due to academic pressure, said Marsha Deslauriers, executive director of CHAC. Students, many of them high-achievers, are overwhelmed by depression and anxiety "so significant that they cannot or will not attend school," she said. Parents overwhelmed by their own workload will often just let their kids stay home, and after a few days, the problem starts to compound.
"The kids get so far behind in school work it's very hard to catch up," Deslauriers said. "This leads to more days missed — sometimes even weeks — as the student becomes further and further behind in their school work."
Flatmo said it would make a big difference to have an intervention program specifically tailored for the dozen or so students in the district who haven't been able to return to school, or can only take a few classes, and their anxiety appears to be getting worse.
"We want to support those students so they can come in and get back into the routine and feel better again," she said.
Behavioral problems on campus
Also up for consideration next year is the adoption of a behavioral program that would put high-maintenance special education students in a therapeutic program, rather at one of the two comprehensive high school campuses. The program would serve a small number of students — 12 to 15 kids in total — but it would be a boon for school staff trying to manage classroom disruptions.
At the Feb. 27 meeting, Sarraf said handling high-needs students with behavioral problems has been increasingly challenging, and that school staff are spending much of their time "managing them and protecting other students' opportunity to learn." Satterwhite added that there's one student who spends fifth and sixth period in her office every day.
Sarraf told the Voice Monday that when students at either of the district's comprehensive high schools are disengaged, out of control or despondent, there's no program or "circle of care" in place for them. The result is that they end up in various school offices, and their behavior often detracts from other students' ability to learn.
"As a district, we need to come up with an organized system to rehabilitate these students in an efficient way," Sarraf said.
Over the years, Sarraf said the district has adopted several alternate options to traditional high school in order to meet the needs of as many students as possible, whether it be the district's own continuation high school — Alta Vista — or the Middle College program on the Foothill College campus. Even then, she said there are still probably about 100 students who require some kind of support program for their "unique aspirations and needs."
Superintendent Jeff Harding told board members that the behavioral program, and its associated $500,000 price tag, is part of the district's effort to help all students succeed instead of sending the most challenging teens to a county continuation program and chalking them up as dropouts.
"We have a dropout rate as low as it is, but there's still that population of students that needs something that we're not offering," Harding said. "This (behavioral) program right here would not exist in most of California."
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