For the past three years, Eagle Academy Public Charter School (with two campuses in the District of Columbia’s Wards 6 and 8) has worked to create a comprehensive school mental health system* with help from the Bainum Family Foundation and our partner the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools (CHHCS) at The George Washington University. Eagle’s primary focus has been family engagement, aimed at building a tightknit community in which parents are partners in their children’s education and social-emotional wellness, and all parents receive a range of supports — such as GED referrals, job fairs and a clothing closet — to enhance their families’ overall well-being.

“The family piece is important,” says Linda Sheriff, Deputy Director at CHHCS, who supports the work at Eagle. “We want children to feel that all sides are there for them, and for parents to be better able to support their child’s learning.”

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the Eagle community especially hard. Many parents and students were affected directly by the virus, and families also suffered the loss of loved ones and faced economic uncertainty due to job losses. The support structure Eagle had been building proved beneficial in multiple ways.

The entire Eagle staff launched into crisis-response mode to support families, providing educational resources and social-emotional toolkits, dropping off meals and necessities for families affected by the virus, and continuing the school’s weekly fresh-food market.

Dorothy Brockington, Mental Health Coordinator at Eagle Academy Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. (above right with Sharmel Porter-Robinson, Lower School Principal at Eagle’s Congress Heights campus, and below right, conducting a virtual therapy session), works with school leaders to provide supports for students, families and school staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Eagle also made teachers a priority, understanding the tremendous demands and expectations placed on them as well as the significant risk of burnout as they adjusted overnight to virtual learning and dealt with their own safety concerns and family needs.

“Teachers nationally are quitting because they are becoming overwhelmed,” says Dorothy Brockington, Mental Health Coordinator at Eagle. “We know how essential our teachers are to the well-being of our school community, so we made sure to emphasize their needs.”

Eagle established a Teacher Well-Being Committee and a plan for supporting teachers. The school principal starts all staff meetings with a staff check-in. Teachers can attend biweekly group teletherapy sessions (from the same providers who support the school’s children and families) and also can participate in individual therapy sessions. Eagle is providing financial planning support and emergency funds for teachers, and all staff members are welcome to participate in the fresh-food market. These activities and supports will continue throughout the 2020/2021 school year.

The team at Eagle also receives strong peer support. As part of our School Mental Health initiative, Eagle participates in a community of practice (COP) with three other D.C. public charter schools — DC Prep, DC Scholars and Monument Academy. COP meetings — now virtual and occurring twice a month instead of once since April 2020 — give members a forum to discuss pandemic-related needs and challenges. They have sought advice from each other on a range of issues, such as how to find and connect with families, how to track and coordinate student and family data across the school, and how to conduct effective teletherapy sessions with elementary-age children. The CHHCS team organizes and facilitates the discussions as well as provides national resources and insights on best practices.

Despite the negative impacts of the pandemic and the many challenges — including training staff, students and parents on a new virtual learning system for the 2020/2021 school year — Ms. Brockington sees a positive outcome emerging: Parents are much more engaged in services for their children.

“With the virtual teletherapy sessions, our clinicians get to see the parents more often and in a more meaningful way than during drop-offs and pickups at school, and they also get to see the children in their natural environments,” she says. “It’s building trust and stronger relationships among the clinicians, parents and children — and that will benefit everyone over the long term.”

*Comprehensive school mental health systems provide an array of supports and services that promote positive school climate, social and emotional learning, and mental health and well-being, while reducing the prevalence and severity of mental illness.