A new program has been started for students in the Wilkes County Schools who have difficulty being in traditional classrooms due to behavioral issues.

The BEST (Behavioral, Emotional, Social and Therapeutic) Academy replaced a therapeutic day treatment program provided for four years through a partnership with Daymark Recovery Services, stated a press release from Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd.

As they were in Daymark’s day treatment program, K-2 students in the BEST Academy are being served at Mulberry Elementary, third- through fifth-graders at C.C. Wright Elementary, middle schoolers at West Wilkes Middle and high schoolers at North Wilkes High. One classroom at each school will be used.

The Daymark day treatment program served around 36 students at any given time – around eight to 10 students at each of the four locations – with a goal of students returning to their community schools within 18 months.

Students had to have a mental health diagnosis to be in the Daymark day treatment program and some were involved in the juvenile justice system. They received educational services as outlined in their Individualized Educational Programming.

Byrd said the BEST Academy is serving the same student population.

His press release stated, “While this partnership (with Daymark) was very successful for the first three years, the past year brought school and district leadership to the realization that the schools and the provider (Daymark) no longer had a shared vision of what these classrooms should look like or which students should be served in them.”

He explained that Daymark had told school officials that it no longer would be able to serve many of the Wilkes school system’s highest needs students, even thought they had previously been accepted in the day treatment classes.

Byrd said this resulted in many of students served in the day treatment program not being the most at-risk students, including many whose needs could be met in regular classrooms with social and emotional supports provided by school-based therapists.

With the BEST Academy, the press release said, a wider range of individual student needs will be met and these students and their families will be connected with a full range of other community service providers.”

Students posing a significant safety risk to others in the classroom are provided homebound services until they’re deemed safe to attend school, said Byrd, adding that this was also the case with the day treatment program.

The press release said public schools are required to serve all students in the least restrictive environment possible.

Decision made in August

Byrd said the decision to change from the Daymark day treatment program to the BEST Academy was made in August and Daymark was notified Aug. 16. “We have been working as quickly as possible to get classroom services lined up for these classrooms so that students did not have additional transitions,” said Byrd.

There was no indication of the Daymark day treatment program being ended in this year’s annual Wilkes School Advisory Council report, given at the Aug. 5 Wilkes school board meeting.

The report said the day treatment program provided therapeutic treatment and classroom instruction simultaneously for “students with more serious emotional and mental health needs.”

It noted that many students in the program previously couldn’t attend a full day of school due to their emotional and behavioral needs and that the program resulted in major gains in full days of attendance and academic progress for all participating students.

The program continued through summer months, including this past summer, so students could continue getting emotional and behavioral support.

Wilkes school administration informed students in the day treatment program and their parents that the day treatment program was being ended about a week before classes started this school year, according to people familiar with the matter.

Dr. Kim Stone, principal at C.C. Wright Elementary, said the change in delivery of services provided to students with diagnosed mental illness/social emotional challenges has been nothing but positive.

“With two teachers and one teaching assistant in the classrooms we are seeing less behavior escalation, which in the past has resulted in a good deal of classroom destruction. I attribute this to improvement in consistent expectations and follow through. Over the course of 10 days, the differences we are seeing with the students in this classroom is remarkable,” said Stone.

Staffing

In addition to Wilkes school personnel, the day treatment program was staffed by three fulltime licensed mental health therapists employed by Daymark to provide school-based counseling and therapeutic treatment.

Four licensed mental health counselors employed by Wilkesboro-based Jodi Province Counseling PLLC have joined Wilkes school personnel to staff the BEST Academy. These Jodi Province Counseling staff are in classrooms two days per week providing individual therapy for students and helping with small skills-building groups.

Byrd said that with the day treatment program, each of the four school sites had one classroom teacher and two teacher assistants. With the BEST Academy, each classroom has one special education teacher, one regular education teacher and one TA. Students are receiving daily social and emotional skills instruction and coaching.

He said the only exception is at North Wilkes High, where there is one teacher and two TAs due to the difference in delivery of instruction at the high school level.

Byrd said all teachers in the four classrooms received training in two social and emotional learning curriculums before classes started. “Zones of Regulation” is used in K-five classrooms and “PEERS” is used in grades six-12 classrooms. “Zones of Regulation” is already used by many Wilkes elementary school teachers as part of their core instruction for all students, he added.

He said local exceptional children’s funds for two TA positions were allocated to help pay for these two new positions, with no positions cut. Local funds also were used for related facility upgrades.

Byrd said school counselors in the four schools that host BEST Academy also provide support for students similar to what is provided to all students in the Wilkes schools.

He said two additional Wilkes school positions were created to implement the BEST Academy. This includes a new behavior support liaison position to refer students and families in the program to community partners and support programs, in addition to school services. One regular education teacher position also was created.

Salisbury-based Daymark is the primary provider of behavioral health services in Wilkes. It operates in Wilkes and in most of the adjoining counties through contracts with Asheville-based Vaya Health, one of seven managed care organizations statewide that oversee public funding of behavioral health care.

The press release said school-based therapy will still be offered to any student wishing to improve their social and emotional well-being. Students most often receive assistance dealing with anxiety, anger management, depression, grief, relationships with peers and family members and substance use/abuse, the press release said.

“Daymark will be one of the providers for K-five” school-based therapy,’ said Byrd. “However, due to limits on the number of therapists Daymark is providing for school-based therapy this year, as well as vacancies it has, we’re in discussion with other mental health providers to offer school-based therapy at some of our elementary sites.”

He said Jodi Province Counseling, in partnership with the Wilkes Health Department, will continue to provide school-based therapy to students in grades 6-12 through the MESH unit.

Byrd said companies that provide mental health services in Wilkes schools bill private insurance if students have this coverage or set up payment arrangements with parents/guardians for the services they provide. He said the school system also has a Student Assistance Program contract which pays a minimal fee to a mental health provider for a student to receive a mental health assessment and up to four therapy sessions at no cost if there are insurance or payment concerns.

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