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Assistance program to provide extra help for Jeannette students

| Wednesday, April 30, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The Jeannette School Board has approved its Westmoreland County Student Assistance Program agreement for the 2014-15 school year.

“Student assistance is for those students who may be having difficulties at home, with discipline or attendance issues, or anything they might need extra support with,” said Superintendent Matthew Hutcheson.

The state-mandated program requires each Pennsylvania school district to implement the assistance program at the middle and high school levels, specifically.

However, many districts, including Jeannette, find it beneficial for students in all grade levels to have the program available to them. These districts implement what is known as ESAP, or the Elementary Student Assistance Program.

“If students are struggling with issues in school, a kid is exhibiting some behavior that isn't normal for them, or they're acting down and not themselves, sometimes our teachers make an ESAP or SAP referral,” said Matthew Jones, principal at Jeannette McKee Middle School. “Sometimes there's a social issue, or the student even verbalizes what's going on, and they need our help.”

The school district annually funds the program using grants. These grants cover the cost of program materials and staff training.

Each of Jeannette's three schools has a team of principals, guidance counselors and teachers, trained to meet the needs of struggling students. Westmoreland County provides a Student Assistance Program liaison to work with those core teams directly.

“The liaison provides technical assistance to our team and can do student evaluations,” said Jones. “They coordinate a lot of our support services and help us, as a team, make appropriate decisions about which ones should be provided to which student.”

The liaison attends the schools' regular SAP and ESAP meetings to discuss recent student referrals and other confidential student information. They occasionally make recommendations for services needed beyond what is provided at the school level.

“Our expertise is educating students, not evaluating mental health. If a student would need some type of external services, the liaison helps with that,” said Mr. Jones.

The assistance is student-specific and students can “self-refer” to the program. In the event of a tragedy or crisis within the district, the SAP and ESAP teams make themselves available as grief counselors, as well.

“The goal of the program is to provide an additional layer of assistance, beyond what students have available already,” said Hutcheson. “It's a step beyond the traditional guidance counselor. We make sure they're aware of the additional opportunities to receive counseling for whatever they're going through.

The district liaison is provided by the St. Vincent College Prevention Projects. The liaison offers students the chance to meet with a team member personally, as often as necessary, or meet with other students as part of a group session.

Richard Schillow is finishing his first year as guidance counselor for Jeannette's elementary and middle schools, and his first year as an SAP/ESAP core-team member.

“The program is convenient to parents. Instead of having to take their children to outpatient counseling, they can receive services right here,” said Schillow. “It's completely confidential. All the same rules apply. It helps us remove any academic barriers students might have that restrict their learning.”

Jones said the program is necessary on a local level, because it allows core teams to develop a step-by-step protocol for each individual student. Such structure is important, as not every student needs to attend comprehensive counseling programs.

“We first need to think about why we're here. Whether it's to meet educational or social needs, the students have to be first and foremost in everything we do,” said Jones. “If we have healthy and happy students, we're going to have a much healthier and happier school environment, as well.”

For more information about the Student Assistance Program, contact the superintendent's office or visit www.sap.state.pa.us.

Kaylie Harper is a contributing writer.

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