Nearly all 29 of Sylvia Qualls’ fifth-grade students have experienced trauma. Some are in homeless shelters, others in foster care. Some face domestic violence. Their lives are affected by drugs, alcohol and gangs.

Qualls says the 550 children at Mintie White Elementary School in Watsonville have little access to psychological services. The school shares with two other sites a psychologist who spends much of her time attending individualized learning meetings and assessing students for resource specialist services. Though an intern counselor sees individuals and small groups two days a week, many of Qualls’ students get no counseling in or out of school.

Many of Qualls’ students have asthma, diabetes, ADHD, life-threatening food allergies and undiagnosed problems that prevent them from learning.

“I don’t have the ability to diagnose common maladies,” said Qualls. The certificated school nurse is on campus only one day a week. 

The library is staffed by a part-time library tech and closed after school. Many of Qualls’ students can’t get to the public library. “If students are expected to do project-based learning and think critically, they need access to a library with current materials, and someone to introduce them to literature and digital literacy.” 

The Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers’ member sees the CFT’s Healthy Kids, Healthy Minds legislation as a big step toward addressing these gaps. AB 1955 will take advantage of Medi-Cal funding to put a nurse and a mental health professional in every school. It will make sure libraries are open before and after school. 

“We want kids to be in class, but students need services that teachers cannot provide.”

Joann Borbolla is a counselor at E.A. Hall Middle School, also in Watsonville, where approximately 600 students share the same challenges as Qualls’ students. Borbolla meets weekly with the highest-risk students. She facilitates drug and alcohol groups three times a week and does ongoing crisis intervention.

“Kids bring so many issues to the classroom in addition to typical adolescent problems,” she says. Borbolla observes students in class, visits homes to understand family situations and helps teachers plan behavior modifications. She refers many students and families to agencies outside school where they are often put on waiting lists. Borbolla says academic success depends upon a multifaceted approach with teams of teachers, counselors and nurses.

In Oxnard, school nurse Diane Garcia is stretched thin. Although the recommended ratio of nurse to students with complex medical needs is 1:125, she serves 2,200 regular and special education students at one site and travels to a continuation school up to three times a month. Garcia knows that AB 1955 would provide critical support for hundreds of kids with health and emotional needs.

In contrast, Oxnard High School’s certificated librarian, Jennifer Brickey, feels fortunate to have the support and budget she needs. The library is open before and after school. She works with classes during scheduled times. In an average week, 200 students get library passes to research or finish assignments. 

With a largely immigrant, limited English-speaking population, Brickey feels a responsibility to establish a culture of literacy and positive learning relationships. “Libraries should be in the forefront of Common Core implementation, and adjust to the new demands of teaching.”

Wes Davis, president of the Oxnard Federation and a social studies teacher, sees AB 1955 as a social justice issue. “We must ensure the academic success of our students even when they do not get their health and emotional needs met at home,” he said. “We want kids to be in class, but students need services that teachers cannot provide.”

“If we can provide care after school instead of sending them home, kids won’t miss out on learning. When a kid is sick and we have to ask a parent to leave work, we place a huge burden on that family.”

“Healthy Kids, Healthy Minds will ultimately save the schools money,” Davis concludes. “It’s smart legislation.”

— By Mindy Pines, CFT Reporter