Biden cabinet members visit St. Louis to talk mental health in schools, HBCUs
Two members of President Joe Biden’s cabinet were in St. Louis Wednesday as part of a back-to-school bus tour.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has been riding a big blue bus around the Midwest this week to talk about the Biden-Harris Administration’s education priorities. In St. Louis, the tour focused on mental health in schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Cardona met up with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra at Compton-Drew Middle School. On a tour of the school, the two saw what school leaders have implemented to deal with student trauma and mental health issues.
In a “calm-down room,” students practiced yoga for the federal officials. St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Keisha Scarlett and U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, were also there to give the secretaries local perspective on national issues facing schools.
Principal Susan Reid said when her students came back to in-person learning after the pandemic isolation, they needed significantly more mental health support to deal with the trauma of everything that had happened. Staff saw student pain reflected in increased behavior issues among students.
Soon, the school implemented the calm-down room and other Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, including a reward system for good behavior called “Dolphin Tickets,” named after the school’s mascot. Reid’s team saw a 60% decrease in suspensions last year compared to the year before.
Secretary Cardona said often mental health services in schools are reactionary, “but we have a model here that’s proactive. That lessens incidents of trauma and quite frankly we want to lift up this model because across the country we need to do better.”
The administration is working to increase federal funding for community schools, which could include support for mental health services.
“Schools are not just about education,” Becerra said. “More and more, they’ve become a place for health. It is hard to learn if you are hungry. It is hard to learn if you are unhoused. It is hard to learn if you are burdened by stress and trauma.”
St. Louis Public Schools superintendent Keisha Scarlett told the secretaries in order to continue to offer services like those at Compton-Drew, schools can’t rely on pandemic relief funding that will soon run out.
“We have to sustain the funding,” Scarlett told the secretaries. “Our country has to fund our values, and what are our values? Nothing is more important than our children.”
'Supporting HBCUs is critical'
Cardona also addressed financial education assistance and ways to better serve historically Black colleges and universities at a roundtable discussion on Wednesday with students at Harris-Stowe State University.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education initiated the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund to keep college students enrolled and help offset rising tuition costs.
Harris-Stowe received $37,210,393 in federal relief funds. The institution used some of the funds to provide emergency financial aid grants to students, clear outstanding student account balances and help with the construction of the university’s science, technology, engineering and math building. The university also used a portion of the funds to upgrade campus buildings and to purchase technology equipment and software to help students participate in virtual learning.
Cardona assured the college students that the Biden Administration aims to repair a broken student loan system and plans to continue investing in historically Black universities.
“When we talk about inclusivity and leveling the playing field, supporting HBCUs is critical,” Cardona said.
Harris-Stowe saw an increase in student morale and campus activity participation, since many students received federal grant funding to pay for tuition and other fees, said Jordan Ross, an accounting senior.
“Peace of mind is one thing, but financial relief is a whole different ball game,” Harris said.
Cardona said the federal government is investing in improving HBCUs campus buildings and wants the schools to be able to compete with other universities in technology.
“If you don’t have the equipment to compete for research grants, then it also lessens the attractiveness [of schools],” Cardona said.