In spite of challenges, Garfield Heights City Schools excelling in student mental health, support

Posted at 5:55 PM, Nov 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-18 18:42:02-05

GARFIELD HEIGHTS, Ohio — News 5's Katie Ussin has been visiting school districts across Northeast Ohio to learn about their challenges and achievements.

Garfield Heights City Schools has faced challenges to start off this new school year. There were security concerns, and a teacher strike was avoided with a new contract that was reached last month.

However, new leadership in the central office has renewed hope among staff and students that the district can overcome these challenges together while also growing the good.

Jalyn Ricks is a fifth grader at Elmwood Elementary School. He just found out he made the basketball team, which he’s super excited about, but says he's prouder of his accomplishments off the court.

"Coming to school every day, doing my work, and paying attention," said Jalyn.

His excellence in the classroom has earned him Student of the Month.

"To get this award—it’s just awesome because it shows that you’re doing good," he said.

Celebrating the good with initiatives like this is just one of the ways Elmwood Elementary has been keeping kids motivated, and engaged while focusing on the whole child, says school counselor Jen Huncharek.

They aim "to show them what they’re doing here matters," said Huncharek.

She says they also do a lot of work on emotional learning, as well.

The Ohio Board of Education recently awarded Elmwood with its highest rating for creating a safe and supportive school environment, which is part of the state's strategic plan for education.

Huncharek says the reward is reflected in students like Jalyn.

"Every day when I get up, I got that mindset like: I’m ready to learn. Today’s going to be a good day, and let’s go,” said Jalyn.

Meantime, there’s something to celebrate at the high school, as well.

The National Honor Society is helping start a new mental health initiative at their school.

NHS students will train to provide peer-to-peer support. It will be modeled after the successful program in Parma schools.

NHS seniors Micheal and Makayla say it’s needed at their school.

"I'm looking forward to helping people and making something we’ve been wanting to start for years actually happen," said Makayla Svoboda.

"I've gone through depression and I still have anxiety I’m dealing with," said Micheal Dimond. "So, I would love to help people. My whole life I’ve always wanted to help people."

"This has been one of my big goals before I decide to retire, whenever that may be," said Joni Wanderstock with a smile.

She’s wanted to implement a mental health program there for years.

Wanderstock is an intervention specialist at the high school who’s been a teacher for 43 years.

She is also the NHS advisor. She gets emotional when talking about her students, and it is apparent that their well-being and hers are intertwined.

"I do love them, and they know I love them and that’s what makes it even more special," she said.

Wanderstock credits the new superintendent for helping make the mental health program a reality. She says he’s inspired a lot of optimism for the future of the district.

"We are all in this thing together," said Dr. Richard Reynolds, superintendent of Garfield Heights City Schools. "So, we have to make sure that we’re taking care of each other, and I’ve seen a lot of great sparks of folks really taking care of business. I want to support that, and highlight those things, and show everyone in this area — show everyone in the district — that we can pull this off. We can do great work. We can take care of kids if we do this together.”

Elmwood is hosting the state launch of the Ohio Skills competition for the Heroes League. It is an online, game-based learning platform.

Elmwood was one of the first schools in the state to test it out, and the district says early data indicates it has improved test scores among participants in ELA, math and science.

Garfield Heights is a district of about 3,100 students and 500 staff.

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