Bethany Coburn, a social worker and coordinator of the Student Support Center at Oak Ridge Elementary, receives a group hug from students on campus.

Bethany Coburn, a social worker and coordinator of the Student Support Center at Oak Ridge Elementary, receives a group hug from students on campus. (Gabriel Salcedo/KQED)

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Room 30 at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Sacramento is decked out with inspirational posters.

Board games and art supplies fill the shelves. An exercise treadmill is tucked in one corner. Students use this piece of equipment on a daily basis to manage stress and refocus their energy.

Across the room sits school social worker Danielle Martin. She has a stack of student files on her desk this morning and gets ready to make some phone calls to families. But first, she turns on a small device in her cubicle called a “sound screen,” which produces a constant buzz of white noise.

“It’s like a little buffer,” Martin says. “A lot of what happens here could be sensitive, but it’s also a private confidential space.”

Martin then calls the parents of a young girl who has been getting into fights. Martin says the girl needs help and she wants their permission to get her some group counseling.

Oak Ridge is unique in the Sacramento City Unified School District because it has a Student Support Center on campus with two dedicated professionals. Millions of dollars in federal funding made that possible several years ago. But now, that funding is drying up.

Danielle Martin is one of two school social workers at Oak Ridge Elementary helping students manage stress and trauma in their young lives.
Danielle Martin is one of two school social workers at Oak Ridge Elementary helping students manage stress and trauma in their young lives. (Gabriel Salcedo/KQED)

Under California’s new way of handing out school funding, Oak Ridge is getting an additional $187,000 this year for its at-risk students — but it’s not enough to cover all the people and programs it has added over the years.

The principal is now trying to figure out how to spend that money so that it has the biggest impact.

Bethany Coburn, the other school social worker at Oak Ridge, says having a space like Room 30 is critical for high-needs students because it helps them and their families with everything from evictions to domestic violence. As many as 70 students come here every week for special services.

“Teachers are dealing with so many things,” Coburn says. “We can take some of that pressure, some of that load off of them, so that teachers can teach and focus on academics.”

Coburn, who is also the Student Support Center coordinator, says she and Martin try not to let budget concerns get in the way of their work, because a crisis could come up at any moment.

Today is no exception.

Bethany Coburn, a social worker and coordinator of the Student Support Center at Oak Ridge Elementary, prepares posters with inspirational messages written by students.
Bethany Coburn, a social worker and coordinator of the Student Support Center at Oak Ridge Elementary, prepares posters with inspirational messages written by students. (Gabriel Salcedo/KQED)

A second-grade boy who is new to the school is brought to Room 30 because he says he’s going to hurt himself. Martin springs into action, but is careful not to overreact. She takes him into her cubicle and begins a casual conversation with the boy, which eventually evolves into a line of questioning as part of a suicide risk assessment.

“Ms. Allison told me that you were thinking of possibly hurting yourself,” Martin says to the boy.

He confirms what Martin was told, and then urges her not to call his parents because he says there will be consequences if they find out he is in trouble. Martin does her best to settle his fears.

“When kids come see me, they’re usually not in trouble. So you are not in trouble with me,” Martin responds sympathetically.

The boy lets out a big sigh of relief. Thirty minutes later, Martin and the student come out of her cubicle, and the boy hops on the treadmill to walk it off.

This school year, Oak Ridge’s Student Support Center performed four suicide risk assessments on students at the campus. More than 50 assessments have been completed districtwide.

Danielle Martin helps a student use a treadmill in Room 30 at Oak Ridge Elementary School. The treadmill is used on a daily basis for kids to release stress and refocus their energy.
Danielle Martin helps a student use a treadmill in Room 30 at Oak Ridge Elementary School. The treadmill is used on a daily basis for kids to release stress and refocus their energy. (Gabriel Salcedo/KQED)

Coburn and Martin says they’re trying to help little ones understand their emotions before things escalate. Another way is through weekly group counseling sessions.

On this day, Coburn brings a small group of first-grade students into Room 30 during lunch, sits them down at a table and reads a book about feelings as they munch on apple slices and crackers.

“Can you tell me a time when you felt sad?” Coburn asks the kids.

“I feel sad because I get mad. Sad and mad,” responds one of the little girls.

“Sometimes those feelings go together, and that’s OK,” Coburn tells her. “The important thing is that we learn to manage those feelings and control them.”

Many parents say they appreciate what’s happening in Room 30.

Amanda Hawkins pops into the room for a quick visit with her son, Mekhi, who’s in the sixth grade. Earlier this year, Mekhi wasn’t listening in class, and he was talking back and hitting other kids. Now he’s less explosive and more focused.

“I’m very proud of him for the choices he has made,” Hawkins says. “I just want him to be the person that he is.”

This year Oak Ridge did end up using part of its extra state funding to support Room 30 because of its impact on high-needs kids. But next year the money is going to a different position, and so Oak Ridge will have to tap into another stream of federal funding to keep the center alive.

“I think the work we do speaks for itself,” Coburn says. “We serve so many students, and I think we’re a valuable asset to the school and the community. I think it would be a shame for it to go away.”

This report is the third in Budgeting From the Blacktop, a four-part series by Ana Tintocalis taking a deep look at Oak Ridge Elementary in Sacramento.

See how much your school district spends per student, and how that compares to the national average (map via NPR):

 

After Years of Helping Kids Manage Trauma, One School’s Unique Program Faces Uncertainty 16 June,2016Ana Tintocalis