Exemplary School Based Youth Services programs such as Highland Park’s worth considering as New Jersey implements necessary new statewide infrastructure for student and family support

As New Jersey moves toward a statewide network of support services in response to the sharp increase in students coping with mental health issues, operators of existing School Based Youth Services (SBYS) programs hope their funding will not be eliminated.

The new infrastructure for student and family support, known as the New Jersey Statewide Student Support Services (NJ4S) Network, will operate under the New Jersey Department of Children and Families (NJDCF), which currently grants funding for nearly 90 SBYS programs.

Those SBYS programs, such as a highly successful model in Highland Park, serve about 30,000 students, or approximately 2 percent of the nearly 1.4 million students across New Jersey’s 584 school districts.

Senator Patrick Diegnan, D-Middlesex, was privileged to partake in a recent roundtable discussion with Highland Park Schools Superintendent Dr. Kristina Nicosia and Borough Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler, as well as students, parents, staff, and administrators involved with the district’s SBYS program known as the Community Teen Center.

Through those conversations and a tour of the district’s on-site facility at the high school, Diegnan learned students and families who benefit from the program, which serves about 400 middle and high school students annually, have a safe and welcoming environment to feel supported, accepted and affirmed while expressing themselves in confidence and without judgement.

“Having our School Based Youth Service Program in our middle and high school has been an invaluable asset to the district,” Nicosia said. “Students and families having free access to our mental health support anytime during the day and after school has saved lives. I hope whatever the future holds for programming, that the state is able to recreate the high level of trust our students have with our staff.”

The Community Teen Center has been integral to the Highland Park community since its inception in 2001. Many have contributed to the program’s success over the past two decades, making it an exemplary model for SBYS programs statewide.

“We’d be happy,” Brill Mittler said, “to serve as a model for other communities if the legislature retained funding for in-district-school-based youth services programs.”

The Community Teen Center provides comprehensive services to students in grades 6 through 12 who reside in Highland Park. Services include mentoring, prevention programs, recreation activities, health information, cultural programming, career assessment, social skills and peer relations, academic support, stress management, goal setting, post high school planning, and individual, family and group counseling.

Experienced counseling staff work as a coordinated team with other support staff members to provide those valuable services, all of which take place at the high school and are confidential. Anonymous surveys are conducted at the beginning and end of the program to assess students’ developmental assets and determine the program’s impact on their growth.

Through collaboration with the guidance department, child study team, school administrators, individual teachers and other community-based programs, the Community Teen Center has provided effective interventions for countless students who successfully graduated from high school and went on to college or work.

With rates of depression, anxiety, and stress among New Jersey teens and young adults escalating, Governor Phil Murphy and members of his administration recently announced plans to create a new statewide infrastructure for student and family support.

“While the existing network provides meaningful support to many of the students it serves, it has not comprehensively adopted evidence-based approaches in use in many other parts of the United States, is not poised to be scalable to all school districts in the state, and due to inconsistent operating models is not positioned to maximize federal funding streams,” NJDCF Commissioner Christine Norbut Turner recently wrote in a NJ4S Network executive summary.

The NJ4S network, according to the Murphy administration, will provide statewide coverage through 15 regionally based hubs that will offer proven prevention strategies used to support every student in the state and their families.

Each hub will integrate its programming with existing state and local services to improve coordination and reduce duplication of effort. Hubs will offer a tiered menu of evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies that can be deployed in high-need districts. The NJ4S Network will provide universal support to all New Jersey students and more intensive support to students in schools with higher needs.

The new model, according to an NJ4S concept paper, would be aligned along court vicinages and Children’s System of Care service areas to support statewide delivery of prevention services in schools, as well as other locations in the community including but not limited to libraries, community centers, faith-based-organizations, and family success centers. The hubs would be staffed by a director, support staff, prevention specialists and mental health counselors who could be mobilized to provide services when and where they are needed, both in school and community settings. The hub staff will have the ability to connect students and their parents or caregivers with other community services, both clinical and non-clinical, beneficial to student social, emotional, and mental health and well-being.

The Murphy administration says the NJ4S Network, which is expected to launch in the 2023-24 academic year, presents an incredible opportunity to make New Jersey the first state in the nation to have a statewide integrated system of mental health supports for students in their schools, communities, and homes.

Students and parents with whom Diegnan spoke at the Community Teen Center expressed concern about funding for the Highland Park SBYS program being eliminated, stating a shift to the hub model might force them to alienate comfortable relationships they have established over years with trusted staff and to leave the diminutive 1.84 square-mile borough for services.

All who participated in the roundtable discussion said the Highland Park Community Teen Center made a profound impact and provided a life-changing experience. The Murphy administration says NJDCF will work with existing providers to determine the supports necessary throughout and beyond the transition to ensure students continue to be supported.

In a recent op-ed for The Star Ledger, Senator Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, wrote that the NJDCF “is spot on that we need to reach a statewide solution,” noting the NJ4S Network “would help New Jersey significantly expand student access to mental health services and collect vital data on the effectiveness of, and demand for, those services.”

“Once it’s fully operational, the network could prove invaluable,” Gopal continued. “But it doesn’t have to come at the expense of successful programs that are already in place.”

“We need to be looking toward the future and build a statewide network that serves all 584 of New Jersey’s school districts, while in the interim making absolutely certain that all existing programs that have been such a lifeline for students and their families over the last several years remain in place,” Gopal wrote.

“We cannot allow even one more student to fall between the cracks.”

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