Tania Silva-Johnson

Tania Silva-Johnson

Kodiak Island Borough School District’s focus on mental health needs has been a primary concern for the past five years as it built up its team.

One of the most recent additions to the team has been social worker Tania Silva-Johnson, a Kodiak resident with strong community ties, according to Kim Saunders, director of special services.

“She has been an incredible asset and addition to our work responding to different types of needs,” Saunders said during a recent Board of Education work session.

Both Saunders and Silva-Johnson were present to update the board on different student counseling and mental health needs, and to introduce Silva-Johnson’s specific role.

According to Superintendent Larry LeDoux, Silva-Johnson is the district’s first social worker. 

“We were fortunate enough to have money to hire a social worker this year, but it’s something we’ve needed for a long time,” LeDoux said. 

Prior to signing on with the district, she worked at Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center for two years and currently serves as an adjunct instructor at the University of Fairbanks. Before Providence, Silva-Johnson completed an extensive child welfare internship with the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak.

Silva-Johnson said almost half her time is spent on case management through referrals. 

“Most of my referrals are coming through the counseling offices and admin support, or coming directly from administration,” Silva-Johnson said. “That could be working with families on medical needs, behavioral health concerns or parent-based needs we can then triage and bring counseling back in.”

Sometimes follow-up appointments and support are scheduled to check on the progress of students.

Districtwide initiatives are also an integral part of her role as a social worker, including establishing protocols and coordinating programs such as Counseling With Care.

“Counseling with Care is in conjunction with law enforcement, Kodiak Women’s Resource and Crisis Center and a lot of other agency partners to provide extra support to students who have advanced trauma that might not be on the surface,” Silva-Johnson said. “We’re looking to extend that with Providence and work on how we can support students who have been hospitalized and then re-enter school.”

Other protocols, Silva-Johnson said, include mandatory reporting sheets that allow employees across the district to access if they need to make reports. A central system has also been established to manage student release information.

“We found that there was a gap that some people had different releases, depending on the school,” Silva-Johnson said. “This will allow for a more uniform approach with releases of information.”

Silva-Johnson’s role also includes coordination with a multidisciplinary team made up of the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice, KWRCC, the Alaska Office of Children’s Support, Kodiak Teen Court and the school district.

“We are all meeting on a regular basis to try and keep those relationships and support for our students ongoing,” Silva-Johnson said. “We are working well with OCS, understanding that they are understaffed.”

She said the district has been able to identify student and family needs.

“Just last week we had a couple of parents who had talked to me about getting students individual water bottles, and one quick call to KANA and they have agreed to provide water bottles to the middle school and high school,” Silva-Johnson said. “We started with those schools because students are always changing classes.”

Silva-Johnson said she also has established a network of contacts with social workers in other school districts, as well as out-of-state organizations.

Family interventions also fall in Silva-Johnson’s wheelhouse. 

“It is something I am working on with our counseling team to provide student engagement opportunities for any family in the district … and also offering parents support and education,” Silva-Johnson said. “Some of the parents I am working with can watch webinars at home, meet with me and go over things.”

Silva-Johnson, who is based at the high school, also has been working on student engagement and intervention to address enrollment concerns.

“I started some lunch groups with games, snacks and music, and they have been pretty well attended so far,” Silva-Johnson said. “I keep attendance for informational purposes, and it’s going really well. I’m getting to know a lot of students by name and I think those connections are critical.”

She said student special services has been looking at creative ways to address student attendance to present to administration and the school board. This extends to student outreach and communication.

“We’ve found that text messaging students with District Phone is sometimes a lot more effective because we get a better response than phone calls or emails,” Silva-Johnson said. “That’s part of the avenue to keep connecting to students.”

Silva-Johnson said the district plans to open a family resource center in the basement level of 326 Center Ave. in downtown Kodiak. The center’s goal is to provide resources for families who might not be able to access services at the district’s central office, as well as translation assistance for parents who don’t speak English well.

Damon Hargraves, the district’s director of federal programs, said the center is currently being set up with furniture and supplies.

“It’s a wonderful space and well-located to serve parts of our community that are otherwise unattainable, such as folks who are going from work shift to shift and have trouble getting into our buildings, and will be available in off-hours, after school and on weekends,” Hargraves said. 

Hargraves said the district has posted job openings for the resource center. Additionally, the district is speaking with current staff who might be able to work there.

Saunders said that Silva-Johnson will be chairing a violence prevention committee related to the district’s efforts to overhaul its health curriculum. 

“We are also shifting from a trauma response to resiliency building, looking at ‘What now? And then what happens?’” Saunders said. “Really trying to help students understand how to build their own resiliency and make investments in their own future is going to be where we want to go as an entire district.”

Another goal linked to the social worker umbrella, Saunders said, is developing training and support models for the district’s counselors related to post intervention.

“If a student has a suicide ideation for some reason or a crisis-related situation, counselors want some support to put in place immediately for students because not all school counselors are theruputic in nature,” Saunders said. “What we’ve found happening in our community is that some kids are on a waitlist for upwards of six months and sometimes really struggle to get into outside behavioral health support.”

LeDoux, the superintendent, said the district’s efforts to build up its counseling and mental health team didn’t happen overnight, including the recognition of needing a social worker.

“We started seeing indicators of increased oppositionality, family challenges and disengagement of students in school four or five years ago, so it didn’t happen overnight,” LeDoux said. “COVID certainly added stress to the community and kids, but the kind of stress we talk about, including kids not turning in their work, is an outstanding issue we are trying to address by increasing support.”

He said even after the COVID pandemic subsides, the need for the district’s intervention and mental health services “will still be there.”

“We are monitoring everything closely and trying to engage it from many different angles,” LeDoux said. 

Board President Julie Hill said she was happy to have a more proactive approach for dealing with student mental health needs by focusing on building resiliency.

“I think we can (only) cook kids in trauma soup for so long,” Hill said. “You are going to help them become more resilient or develop the skills they need to move beyond trauma. I think that is a concern in a lot of Alaska’s major social issues.”

Board member Judy Carstens said the decision to hire a social worker, focus on social-emotional health needs as a priority and building up a counseling team “was one of the best moves made this year.”

 

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