Helping Katie & others via community schools/shared facilities

This column originally appeared in several ECM-Sun Current Newspapers, October, 2017, for example


Helping Katie and others via community schools/shared facilities

By Joe Nathan

Katie was referred to me when she started screaming uncontrollably at her social studies teacher. The teacher didn’t know what had set off this normally quiet 12-year-old. All the teacher knew was Katie (not her real name) would not stop screaming.

Normally, as the assistant principal, I would ask a few questions of a student referred to me for disciplinary reasons, listen, and then take the appropriate action. It might be a warning, referral to after school detention, assignment to community service or dismissal for a day or two.  In extreme cases, such as assault with a weapon, I might refer the youngster to the police.

But Katie was baffling. Unfortunately, one of the school counselors was out sick, and the other one was at a conference. I had to do something.

After two hours and many tears, things became clearer. Katie told me that her mother’s boyfriend was abusive to her mom and her. She said the boyfriend had tried to have sex with her. Katie had “snapped.” She didn’t know what to do.

Over the next month we learned that Katie had developed anxiety and trauma. She was a very sick 12-year-old – but not in the routine sense, with a cold or flu.

Police investigated and found Katie’s allegations to be true. She was placed with a foster family.

A staggering amount of time was expended on the phone with mental health experts, social workers and police. Just getting through to the right people became incredibly frustrating.

This and other incidents convinced me there must be a better way to work with students and families. Fortunately, there is.

Sometimes it’s called “community schools,” where schools and social service agencies share a building. One of Minnesota’s best examples is the Brooklyn Center Secondary School, where several organizations share space, offering “free and low cost medical, dental, vision and mental health services.”

Parents must give written permission for their youngsters to be seen by any of the specialists. More information is available here:

Brooklyn Center’s principal, Carly Jarva, told me via email that “…different mental health providers provide counseling and therapy for students from their licensed marriage and family therapists, both in the building as well as off site at their locations. They have full caseloads for the days that they are in the building. I find their work to be of great benefit for our students. They are able to do more in-depth support for students beyond what our guidance staff is able to do due to capacity. I am eternally grateful for their partnership. They have helped countless students and families.”

Financial support comes from many organizations. It’s a wonderful collaboration. The website explains: “The Brooklyn Center Health Resource Center is made possible by our generous sponsors, Park Nicollet Foundation and the United Way; and by our community partners, Park Nicollet Health Services, The Annex Teen Clinic, Children’s Dental Services, North Psychology Clinic, POR Emotional Wellness, The Family Partnership, Portico Healthnet, Dr. Frick (Optometrist), and Brooklyn Center Community Schools District.”

Both the Center for School Change, where I work, and Education Minnesota, the statewide teacher union, strongly support community schools. The Minnesota Legislature provided funds to help establish more of them a few years ago. But funding was cut this year. I hope that the candidates for governor will discuss this idea.

Startup funds ought to be available. Then there could be ongoing community collaborations, such as the effort in Brooklyn Center. CSC wrote a free booklet about how rural, suburban and urban communities are creating and using the community schools, in Minnesota and nationally. It’s here:

Beyond community schools, Minnesota’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness is a wonderful resource. Their statewide conference is Nov. 4.  More information here:

            Recently, as they explained in a press release, “Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie and their colleagues from Ramsey and Washington County hosted an educational forum for professionals on mental illness…” They recognize that this issue must be a priority. More information here:

Katie received the help she needed, though it took too long. Community schools are one efficient way to help more students like her.


Joe Nathan was a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president who directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome, or @JoeNathan9249