The funding will allow SAD 1 to employ another social worker to help students through mental health crises.
SAD 1 Superintendent Ben Greenlaw listens to a presentation on May 17, 2022, during a school board meeting. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Presque Isle-area schools will receive more than $600,000 to better care for students’ mental health.

The district is one of nine throughout Maine identified with a high need for mental health services, Maine Department of Education officials said Thursday. It’s the only school district in northern Maine to receive funding.

Today’s students face a barrage of stressors, from cyberbullying to the pandemic to even danger at school. Last year, parents struggled with how to inform their children about the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting but not make them afraid of school. Even hoaxes, like the widespread threats across Maine last November, can leave scars.

Having enough mental health providers to help students through crises is key, and the money will provide another social worker for the district, according to SAD 1 Superintendent Ben Greenlaw.

“I don’t know if it’s related to the pandemic, or if it’s just the way society is now. We’re seeing an increased need at really all of our schools in students that need additional mental health supports,” Greenlaw said.

The district will receive $121,496 annually over five years from Expanding Access in School Environments Maine. The money comes from the bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

SAD 1, which serves five schools across Presque Isle, Mapleton, Castle Hill, Chapman and Westfield, will hire another full-time social worker with the funds. Each school will then have its own social worker, Greenlaw said. Pine Street and Mapleton elementary schools share a provider now. 

SAD 1 staff are seeing an increase of challenging behaviors from students, especially at the elementary schools, he said. Typically, there’s something going on in a child’s life to cause such behavior. Adding one social worker won’t solve every problem, but it will help alleviate mental health crises.

The pandemic intensified everything students were dealing with, the superintendent said. Young students, especially, lost a lot of social interaction when people were isolated.

“Even when we returned to school, it wasn’t like school had been before. We were really working on social distancing and keeping people from getting sick,” Greenlaw said. “The less interaction you have with your peers at a young age, the more difficult it is to refine those skills as you get older.”

With another social worker on staff, the district wants to expand work with whole classrooms on social and emotional skills, such as interacting with peers and learning to manage conflict — skills that often take a backseat to phones and other devices.

The Department of Education contacted Greenlaw earlier this year and said SAD 1 would be a good candidate to receive funds because it has a high number of students in relation to social workers on staff. The district learned last week it won funding. 

Other schools receiving funds are: Eastport Public Schools, which will receive $65,541 annually for five years; Jefferson Public Schools, $67,947; Lewiston Public Schools, $248,644; RSU 12 based in Somerville, $92,698; RSU 24, Sullivan, $88,251; RSU 54, Skowhegan, $141,655; RSU 73, Livermore Falls, $110,560; and RSU 85, Lubec, $63,208.

SAD 1 doesn’t know when it will have the funds in hand and what else the money can be spent on, according to Greenlaw. District staff have been seeking more guidance from state education officials before they hire a social worker, but the superintendent hopes to begin a search by the end of May.

Greenlaw is grateful to receive the funds because it means more help for students in crisis.

“Crisis can mean a lot of things. I just think the needs are so high — whether depression, anxiety, issues going on at home. Developmentally, sometimes students are having a harder time,” he said. “Help for those students to work through those challenges is welcome.”