CANTON — Cherokee County School District has fully implemented the first phase of its new initiative for mental health, and schools will soon see more resources for students, parents and staff.

At the start of the school year, the district rolled out Social Emotional Learning, headed by Debra Murdock, to better support students and staff’s emotional and mental health and well-being. When it’s fully implemented, the district plans to have increased supports in and out of the classroom, and incorporate SEL lessons in curriculum.

Murdock reported to school board members at their meeting Thursday that the first of three planned phases is fully underway, and her team is starting work on the second phase. The district recently appointed an oversight and an advisory committee for the initiative made up of district staff, business partners and community members.

Six schools are in the process of testing a plan to have counselors spend less time on administrative work and more time with students. The district is also working with the Parent Teacher Association to develop a “parent university series” of events to help parents support their children’s’ mental health.

In January, schools will be tasked with forming what the district calls care teams, support networks that exist to help the most at-risk students, Murdock said. In addition to school-level care teams, the district plans to have a care team for each high school zone, which includes feeder elementary and middle schools, which provide more support and services in the event of a crisis.

Phase two will include implementing SEL lessons for middle and high school students, and the district has developed about half of that curriculum, Murdock said.

“We have been pushing, and they have done extraordinary work. We’re thrilled,” she said.

Also in January, a committee will work to develop the district’s first positive behavioral framework, something administrators and teachers will use to promote good behavior. Murdock said one of the goals of the committee is to establish a “redemption practices” system through which students can reduce the disciplinary actions they face by completing positive behavior requirements.

Two new counselor positions created this year are support specialists, and they provide one-on-one counseling to children and support schools in mental health, and coordinate crisis teams, Murdock said.

For teachers and staff, the district this year launched Lifeworks as its new employee assistance program, which includes 24-hour, seven days a week toll-free telephone service with immediate access to a licensed counselor.

Focus areas for district staff and teachers are equity and cultural competence, positive behavioral framework, mental health and suicide prevention, trauma-informed practices and staff well-being and self-care. Curriculum for SEL is categorized into five areas: self awareness, social awareness, responsible decision making, self management and relationship skills.

Also at the meeting, the school board received an update on work by the Office of Curriculum and Instruction to develop a “Profile of a Future Ready Graduate,” which is a snapshot of the skills and qualities CCSD wants to instill in all students by the time they graduate. The six key traits of the profile are: Thinker, Communicator, Contributor, Learner, Collaborator and Leader. The full profile is on the school district’s website.

The school board on Thursday unanimously approved its 2020 Legislative Partnership Priorities. The school board annually develops and publishes the priorities to clear its stand on education issues anticipated to come up for a vote before the state legislature. In the priorities, the school board opposes: using state tax dollars for private school and home school vouchers, reducing Teacher Retirement System benefits for future educators, efforts to limit sovereign immunity and using schools as polling locations. The board asks legislators to protect local control, and to support an alternate high school diploma option for career and technical pathways.

The school district also saw some significant personnel changes in its monthly human resources report. Randy Evans, who has served as CCSD’s supervisor of maintenance since 2004, is retiring after 27. He is a past president of Georgia School Plant Maintenance Association and leads a 40-person team, many of whom attended the meeting to congratulate him.

The school board, as part of the human resources agenda item, also approved two leadership appointments: Lisa Rich as assistant principal at Dean Rusk Middle School, and Trey Moores as director of maintenance.

Rich, an Etowah High School graduate who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, has served with the district for the last nine years including as a paraprofessional, special education teacher and instructional lead strategist.

Moores, a Harvard University graduate with 23 years of construction project manager experience, has worked on large projects including construction of Mercedes Benz Stadium, remodeling Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta and the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport gate modernization.

Hightower also announced that the school board earned the Georgia School Boards Association’s inaugural Leading Edge Award for its VILLA program. VILLA is an educational workshop for parents which saw this semester’s class ‘graduate’ Thursday with recognition from the board.

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Shannon is a reporter covering education, city governments, crime, features, religion and other local news. She is a graduate of Young Harris College and currently lives in unincorporated Woodstock.

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