Attendance Would Be 100%: Student Proposals for High School Redesign Boston

From an interview with Dr. Karla Estrada Deputy Superintendent of Student Support Services for Boston Public Schools:


He had his first psychotic episode at sixteen, but mental illness does not happen overnight. His family and teachers didn’t see the warning signs: as a kid, he fought with other students and didn’t complete his schoolwork. He was suspended continuously and ended up held back twice. After his breakdown he was forced to leave the Boston Public Schools. His only alternative was homeschooling.

This student is an example of how BPS fails their students with mental health issues because they do not have the right systems in place and often mistake mental illness for behavioral problems. Boston Public Schools can play a central role in helping this vulnerable population. Dr. Karla Estrada, Deputy Superintendent of Student Support Services for Boston Public Schools, says that BPS has a renewed focus on the social-emotional needs of students, and are aware that they are critical to student success. BPS currently has resources available such as BPS Behavioral Health Services, however, Karla worries that students do not know what they are or how to access them.1

You can have all the resources in the world but it doesn’t matter if they are not being used, and part of this is because students do not know they exist. BPS needs to do a better job of informing students and their families about these resources. But in order to do this our school communities first need to fight stigmatization and acknowledge that there is actually a huge problem that has been going on for generations.

Mental health issues can range from feeling anxious to schizophrenia. Why is it so important to help students who are struggling with mental illnesses? The National Alliance on Mental Health shows that one in five youth from ages 13 to 18 experience a severe mental disorder at one point in their life, and 37 percent of students 14 to 21 with mental health conditions served by special education programs drop out. They are the highest dropout rate of any disability group.2

In a school setting, mental health issues are often misconstrued as “bad behavior,” leading to disciplinary actions like detention, suspension, and expulsion. Out of school, it is well documented that a significant portion of our prison population has mental health issues.3 If our schools, and justice system, for that matter, treated mental illness as a health issue instead of a criminal issue, BPS could interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. According to Alison Mollman, a staff attorney in Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, “Schools should invest more in their counselors, invest more in training their teachers on mental health, or even having sessions for students where they talk about mental illness sensitivity.”4

In other words, we need to change the way we deal with mental health problems in the BPS, so we can eliminate the stigma attached to mental illness that keeps students from receiving the support they need. Research suggests that the most promising prevention and intervention strategies involve the entire educational community: administrators, teachers, families, students, support staff, and community members.5 My proposal, therefore, includes the following:

  • Instead of limiting health class to discussing physical health and sexual education, the BPS must educate students more about mental and emotional well-being. In these classes students can become educated about mental illnesses, their symptoms and treatments, as well as resources available for them and their families, both inside and outside of school.
  • Schools should be required to have family services coordinators. This way parents can be a part of their child’s academic and social lives. The coordinators will offer advice, support, and resources to parents and their children.
  • Teachers should be required to have some psychology background or learn about the connections between mental health and behavioral issues. They must learn different ways of how to approach students who are persistent in demonstrating disruptive conduct. Workshops should be provided for teachers during the school year to educate them on warning signs and come up with new approaches. School psychologist, counselors, and family services coordinators should also be present during these workshops.
  • We need to invest more in school psychologists and counselors, who should be required to see a maximum of ten students consistently. There should be an open-door policy for students to see any of these professionals. That way, they can talk when they please without having to be referred. BPS high schools can connect schools with outside organizations as well. These organizations can potentially connect them to other support services like local clinics.

Community partnerships can go a long way in funding these kinds of programs. In a 2014 journal article, school psychologist Kelly Vaillancourt states that even if there is sufficient staff, community partners can fill a critical need.6 Entire school communities will benefit from these services. We should all learn healthy ways of dealing with difficult emotions. Students will advocate for themselves more, and everyone involved will become understanding towards those with emotional problems and more likely to help each other out. BPS will become a more welcoming and safe environment for everyone.


1 Dr. Karla Estrada, in discussion with author, February 9, 2016.

2 National Alliance on Mental Health, “New Report Finds Families Struggle Over a Decade to Get Help for Mental Illness,” press release, February 23, 2016.

3 Meryl Engle, “A quarter of Arizona prisoners are mentally ill,” Arizona Sonora News, February 18, 2016.

4 Alison Mollman, in discussion with author, January 15, 2016.

5 U.S. Department of Education, “Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools,” earlywrn.html (accessed February 12, 2016).

6 Kelly Vaillancourt and Andria Amador, “School-community Alliances Enhance Mental Health Services: Resource-stretched Schools Can Ensure      Comprehensive Mental Health Care for Students by Creating Partnerships with Community-based Service Providers,” Phi Delta Kappa 96, no. 4 (2014): 57.

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Attendance Would Be 100%: Student Proposals for High School Redesign Boston

Written by the first graduating class of the Margarita Muñiz High School, Attendance Would be 100%: Student Proposals for High School ReDesign Boston provides vital student voices in the ongoing work to re-imagine the future of education in Boston. The culmination of a year's worth of interviews, original research, writing, editing and hard work, this book is a call to action to civic leaders across the city.

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