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Top Biden administration officials promote student mental health in St. Louis visit

St. Louis Post-Dispatch - 9/7/2023

Sep. 6—ST. LOUIS — Students at Compton Drew Middle School demonstrated yoga poses in their "calm down corner" on Wednesday for some guests from the federal government.

The U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and U.S. Secretary of Health Xavier Becerra joined U.S. Rep. Cori Bush and local education leaders at the school to promote mental health in schools.

"Healthy kids learn better," Cardona said. "It shouldn't have taken a pandemic to figure out we're not making it with mental health."

The middle school's wellness room includes a massage chair, punching bag, fidgets, checkers and other games along with the yoga mats.

Suspensions have dropped by 60% in the last couple years since the calm down corner opened to reduce stress, said the school's social worker, Tracey Moore.

As many as one in five students in St. Louis Public Schools are homeless, and most live in poverty.

"We have kids who are raising themselves," Moore said.

The roundtable discussion was part of Cardona's "Back to School Bus Tour 2023: Raise the Bar."

The event also includes stops in Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota and Wisconsin with topics including the college access, career training and family engagement.

The bus tour also stopped at Harris-Stowe State University on Wednesday afternoon to discuss funding for historically Black colleges and universities. Mental health is also on the agenda Thursday at another event at Harris-Stowe highlighting the first year of the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline in Missouri.

Cardona's visit comes as some local parents are fighting against mental health programs and social-emotional learning in public schools. "Operation Opt-Out" from the St. Charles County Parents Association calls for excluding students from programs that are "designed to affect my child's behavioral, emotional, or attitudinal characteristics."

The opt-out forms cite programming from the companies Leader in Me and iReady along with local nonprofits Compass Health and CHADS suicide prevention.

The nation's top education official said during a press conference on Wednesday that he welcomes parent engagement while recognizing that schools should support students' overall wellbeing.

"To me it's about partnering with parents," Cardona said. "Just meet the students where they are. If they're not well, take care of them."

Cardona also weighed in on the four-day school week that's been adopted by close to one-third of Missouri's school districts.

"Our students need more not less. We're not going to be competing internationally if we're cutting the school week by 20%," he said.

This week, the Kansas City-area Independence School District, with 14,000 students, became the largest in the state to move to a four-day week.

While the number of instructional days there has been reduced from 170 to 155, the district added 35 minutes to each school day.


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