The inclusion of a new wellness center in the New Paltz school budget which will be voted upon on Tuesday, May 21 is attracting discussion. A considerable amount of public support for the center has been expressed by students, parents and teachers, and a petition of support with over 400 signatures was presented at the March 27 budget forum. But concerns have been voiced as well.
Michaela Raffa, a senior at New Paltz High School, thinks the center will be “a great addition,” and highlights how “we’re trying to overcome different problems with health.” Sophomore lacrosse player Cole Struzzieri also supports the creation for the center, noting how the current equipment is “pretty old” and will be “nice if it’s an upgrade from our [current] weight room.”
According to Greg Warren, the school district’s director of health, physical education and athletics, the wellness center was discussed in informal settings, primarily between students and teachers in physical education classes.
“They didn’t offer any alternatives, there wasn’t really much else,” said Struzzieri. Raffa said that she learned about the center in gym class and was told “what [the center] was about and how it was going to help students with depression and health awareness.”
Proposed with a one-time ask of $300,000 at the March 13 school board meeting, the budget for the wellness center has since been revised. The budget for the 2019-20 school year asks $150,000 for the 2019-20 school year and the same amount for the following year.
The center will utilize space already at the high school. Funding for the center equipment will come from the district’s appropriated fund balance, currently about $2.3 million.
Warren presented the wellness center as “an addition to the physical education program and a curriculum enhancement.” He said it would be available to all students inside and outside of class times. It would consist of 42 workout stations as well as a separate area for non-equipment activities such as yoga or stretching.
Warren highlighted the benefits of physical activity on mental health as well as general physical well-being. The center, he said, aimed to give insight and skills to students on “how to maintain a healthy lifestyle across their lifetime.”
Paths to well-being
Some critics wonder whether the creation of a glorified on-campus gym is the best path to improving overall district wellness. The wellness policy on the district website, last updated in 2009, makes no mention of mental health or emotional wellbeing and only highlights wellbeing in the form of physical and nutritional approaches.
Speakers at a recent board meeting agreed that there was well-documented research on the mental health benefits of physical fitness. There is also well-documented research on the benefits of the arts to mental health, they said. One speaker encouraged the board to look into additional options for encouraging wellness. Another suggested the creation of a committee to oversee wellness promotion in the district’s other schools.
At the March 27 community budget forum, schools superintendent Maria Rice said the wellness center had been designed around a curriculum and a need, that curriculum coming from the lens of physical education and that need coming from a continuum of a well-being initiative within the district. The team that developed it, facilitated by deputy superintendent Michelle Martoni, had included professionals with expertise in mental health and health, social workers, teachers, and guidance counselors.
The wellness center, Rice said, was “a component of the overall continuum of well-being.”
In a flyer released in April, the district said the team was helping “create the curriculum and implement the standards for addressing the mental health component in our schools.” Recent revisions in the New York State Education Department’s health education standards were aimed to create “a school environment which promotes and is conducive to mental health, not just responsive or reactive.”
New services, staffing concerns
The New Paltz district plan incorporated mental health literacy in the K-12 curriculum and set up new guidance and school counseling programs. A “toolkit” of mental health resources will be made available to parents and the community.
The 2018-19 school year saw the addition of a full-time psychologist to the high school “to address the increased need for emotional support and student psychological assessments,” The 2019-20 school budget will add a substance abuse counselor and a bilingual social worker or bilingual guidance counselor.
Currently, the high school offers access to mental health services through a partnership with Astor Services for Children & Families. The clinic at the high school functions as a satellite location of the Astor Counseling Clinic in New Paltz. Session fees are processed through insurance, and parents are billed for co-payments. Other district work focuses on providing staff with training to recognize signs of risk in students. Student support teams focus on ways “to incorporate standards for social-emotional well-being.”
Questions have arisen about how the center will be able to serve all students when it comes to staffing and supervision. Who will, or should, staff it? What protocol will be followed if sports teams are using the space when other students want to? Rice assured them that the center “would have established protocols for teachers and expectations when this goes into effect.” The critics want to see those protocols.
Charlotte Freer, a student at the high school, can’t participate in physical education classes due to a medical condition. She said that she would only be allowed to utilize the center if it had certain equipment. And since she was not in gym class, she had not been informed of the full plans for the center at the high school and had to refer to classmates for information.
The polls will be on Tuesday, May 21 from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Questions may be addressed to Richard Linden, assistant superintendent for business, by calling 256-3010 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.