Project SEEKS SES Blog

  • Highlighting the latest happenings of the grant-funded collaboration with the ACHD

  • West Mifflin School District to create The Holistic Titan Sanctuary through SEEKS SES grant

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 9/22/2023

    A logo of a titan giving a thumbs up in front of the letters W and M


    As the after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have become clearer in schools, the West Mifflin school district has made it a priority to find effective, creative solutions.


    That mindset manifested The Holistic Titan Sanctuary, one of two rooms in the district that will be stocked with exercise equipment and staffed with counseling services. Effectively, the rooms will be designated hubs for students and staff to unwind, blow off steam and mentally clear their brains.


    “There’s been a lot of sluggish, depressive and unmotivated behaviors since the pandemic. Because they were so used to sitting at home in front of a screen and not being physically active, that caused a lot of depression,” said Noelle Haney, the district’s Director of Pupil Services.


    “And as far as social interactions — because they were confined to their house — there weren’t a lot of social interactions and friendships that make children happy.”


    Tendrils of the idea for the rooms started from studies the district did with UPMC and Dr. Elizabeth Miller. Through the Healthy Allegheny Teens Survey, West Mifflin validated a need to focus on physical activity as a vehicle to address multiple issues.


    “Among the findings — which are very consistent with what we see across the country — is that young people spend an inordinate amount of time on screen not doing school work, and similarly, many students are not engaging in physical activity,” Dr. Miller said. 


    “So there are a few data points in the Healthy Allegheny Teens Survey that were helpful in underscoring why addressing emotional health and well-being from a ‘let's get our children moving and focus on physical activity perspective’ would be effective.”


    Dr. Miller has made waves within the mental health and education realm for her work with the Pittsburgh Study, a “longitudinal, community-partnered study focused on child and adolescent thriving and racial equity.” The study — which began in 2018 — aims to study 20,000-25,000 children over the next two decades.


    “The physical fitness rooms will be a holistic approach to the children here at West Mifflin. We’ve done studies with UPMC and Dr. Elizabeth Miller about how exercise and physical activity let out so many endorphins, that it makes them feel better mentally and physically. It’s also a great avenue to socialize and have friends do it with them,” Haney said.


    “It’s a type of relaxation, calming of the brain, getting your mental capabilities back together.”


    Dr. Miller, too, echoed Haney’s thoughts, adding that there are countless studies backed with firm science that validate the connection between physical activity and children thriving.


    “It’s really one of those most important factors in terms of increasing mindfulness, increasing opportunity for relaxation and physiologically all the good things that happen with physical activity,” Dr. Miller said.


    “The chance to get children moving, enjoying each other and being in that space to play cannot be emphasized enough as a really vital aspect of child health and thriving.”


    Haney said the two rooms will be incorporated within students’ physical education and health classes or free periods. Students will also have the opportunity to use the room to blow off steam in the case of an incident, as part of the district’s restorative approach to discipline. 


    “A lot of time for kids — if their behavior escalates — it’ll become a suspension or getting kicked out of school,” Haney said. “Instead it will be a positive reinforcement for them where they can go in, work with a teacher, calm down, release some steam and think about their actions. It’s a well-rounded, positive atmosphere for everybody.”


    Additionally, the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Science will    provide assistance, guidance, and resources to create exercises that mentally and physically aid students and staff’s mental health.


    “It’s a really amazing array of folks really thinking about physical activity, inclusion, accessibility, supporting children with special healthcare needs – all of this,” Dr. Miller said. 


    “This felt like a really amazing opportunity to bring together university partners and school districts and Children’s Hospital to really help with some of the health and wellness activities and support existing folks and amplify the work that’s being done in the school district.”


    Beyond serving multiple functions for students, Haney said the two rooms will be a great resource for staff to stay attuned to their health. 


    “There’s so much burnout with teachers nowadays, especially with the shortage of teachers. Many teachers are picking up extra duties and extra classes and it’s putting a strain on them mentally and physically,” Haney said. “By having this outlet for them, it restores that and gets them back to where they need to be for the students and for themselves.”


    All in all, West Mifflin and Dr. Miller are excited about what’s to come, and — most importantly — excited about how they can help more West Mifflin students thrive.


    “I think this is such an exciting way to approach emotional health and well-being by creating spaces that are so inviting and so open and playful,” Dr. Miller said. “I’m really excited to see what we learn together.”

    Comments (0)
  • Highlands School District holds anti-bullying assemblies through SEEKS funds

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 9/21/2023

    In between feats of strength — ripping a phonebook and tightly rolling up a frying pan — Jon Pritikin delivered a powerful message to Highlands School District students.

    "My message for you guys as upperclassmen is this: someone here or off campus will go through a difficult time and you'll have to be a hero for them," Pritikin said.

    Pritikin is the founder of Feel the Power, an anti-bullying assembly that has been heard by over 10 million people, according to Pritikin's website. Over the course of two days, Pritikin spoke to Highlands School District students. His appearance was funded by Project SEEKS SES, a partnership between the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) and the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) that addresses trauma, behavior and mental health issues in ten school districts.  

    Pritikin overcame bullying from his school peers with help from key people in his life who "believed in him, saw his potential, and began to challenge him to rise above the lies that he had believed about himself for so long," according to the Feel the Power website.

    Now Pritikin preaches a related message to elementary, middle and high school students, encouraging them to always look out for their peers, and to rise above bullying.

    "What we need is people to be heroes and watch out for each other," Pritikin said.

    Comments (0)
  • Project SEEKS SES holds virtual community of practice around violence intervention

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 9/21/2023

    Pictures of attendees for a zoom meeting

    On September 20, the AIU and Project SEEKS SES held its second virtual community of practice meeting. The meeting revolved around violence intervention. 

    Each community of practice meeting will focus on a shared topic of interest between school district, higher education and community partners. Each meeting will be facilitated by the Project SEEKS SES coordinator, Shannon Fagan, in conjunction with a school district/university partner and subject matter expert. For the full upcoming schedule, click here.

    During this meeting, Sto-Rox superintendent Megan Van Fossen spoke about the district's V.I.B.E. (Violence Intervention Building Empowerment) team, a trio of people tasked with violence intervention. To read more about the V.I.B.E team, click here and here.  

    Additionally, Lee Davis, a local violence intervention and violence prevention expert, spoke on the topic. Alexandria Gariepy, Sto-Rox's social worker, also shared her perspective. 

    For video of the community of practice meeting, click here.

    Comments (0)
  • Penn Hills provides SEEKS-SES funded mediation training

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 9/18/2023

    SEEKS logo

    Seven years ago, the Penn Hills School District made what former superintendent Nancy Hines called a “pretty bold move.”

    Collectively, the board came to a decision to mandate mediations after school fights or related situations. Since then, Hines said the policy has been quite effective, so much so that over the summer, the district decided to once again refresh the training for relevant staff.

    On August 1st and 2nd, Penn Hills’ YESS (Youth Engagement Support Services) staff and security participated in the training. The YESS staff are Pressley Ridge employees dedicated to offering another level of support to prevent and mediate student issues. On August 4 and 7, Penn Hills administrators participated in the training. 

    The training was led by Jerome Jackson — the Executive Director of Operation Better Block — and paid for by Project SEEKS SES, a partnership between the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) and the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) that addresses trauma, behavior and mental health issues in ten school districts.

    “I’m really proud that we’ve maintained that during financial recovery, and now we’ve bolstered it. The philosophy was, ‘what does the school do when kids fight?’ If kids fight they give them a three-day suspension. The kids don’t receive any sort of intervention, they go home mad and they go on social media and collect allies and have one faction against another faction,” said Hines.

    “Our board at the time said that you as administrators are assigned with developing a mediation team that will get involved after the fact. But also now with our YESS team, we have the preventative team in place where there’s signs of escalation. So they swoop in and deescalate the kids.”

    While Penn Hills mandated the training for some employees in 2016, this summer’s training allowed additional employees to receive the training, while also acting as a refresher for counselors. 

    “We wanted to make sure that everybody has the same universal training,” Hines said. “It just makes sense to actually help solve the problem, and to show kids how to effectively problem solve.”

    Hines said that Jackson came highly recommended in 2016. During Jackson’s training, Penn Hills staff were shown how to properly meditate students after an issue. During a mediation session, each side is given a chance to discuss the situation from their perspective and to share their concerns. There is also an effort to determine what outside influence might’ve led to the incident. The objective is to not only get to the bottom of the issue, but to teach students how to move forward from it in a healthy manner.

    “There’s ground rules, like we’re not going to talk over each other and we agree to sit down and try to figure out the source of the problem, what are the contributing factors and who else is getting involved. Sometimes the meditations will include family members,” Hines said.

    “You get the participants to agree on how they’re going to connect themselves and if they hear something, they might go to the counselors office to bring the superintendent down personally and talk about it.”

    For Penn Hills, the mediations are just one step in a concerted effort to prevent future incidents. The district has also implemented a district-wide no cell phone policy, which began this school year, and was piloted at Linton Middle School in 2021-2022.

    “I think when you look at the mediations and no cell phone policy, I think that when the data comes through, you’ll see that there were fewer disruptions,” Hines said.

    “I think the no cell phone policy helps curb that because we saw coming out of the pandemic, the kids didn’t have the same social skills. They had no filter. They were connected to their phones all day long, and getting them back into a routine, it was tough.”

    Hines noted that there’s been an uptick of violence nationwide in schools. She’s hopeful that mediations will help break the cycle of retaliations that can spark an initial issue into an even bigger one.

    “If people can just slow down and process their emotions with a caring facilitator, that can only help,” Hines said. “We really want our kids to be successful and we want to do our best to provide our kids with whatever they need.”

    Comments (0)
  • Chatham University to provide free Youth Mental Health First Aid Training through Project SEEKS SES

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 8/18/2023

    Chatham University

    Click here to see a full training schedule

    Dr. Christie Lewis and Dr. Krisitin Harty of Chatham University are passionate about Youth Mental Health First Aid Training (YMHFA). Both are certified YMHFA instructors and have facilitated training for the PA Inspired Leadership program for PA Dept of Education training, some local schools, and current and past education students at Chatham University.  Last year, they partnered with CCCS via a Pennsylvania Crime and Delinquency grant to provide YMHFA to community members of CCCS.  Therefore, when the prospect arose to partake as a partner in the SEEKS SES grant, they found an opportune time to be able to share this important training. 


    YMHFA is an introductory training to teach parents, family members, caregivers, pre-service teachers, teachers, school staff, peers, neighbors, health and human services workers, and other citizens how to help adolescents experiencing mental health or substance abuse in crisis or non-crisis situations. Youth Mental Health First Aid is crucial because it promotes early intervention, reduces stigma, improves outcomes, prevents suicide, builds resilience, and empowers communities to support the mental health needs of young people. By investing in mental health literacy and providing the necessary tools, a more compassionate and supportive environment for young people can be created. 


    Dr. Lewis and Harty intend to provide 15 trainings over the course of the grant period. The training includes two hours of asynchronous pre-work, six-eight hours of synchronous instruction, and one-hour post-work. The curriculum used for the training is through the National Council for Mental Being. In addition, $200 will be provided to participants who complete the training.

    Comments (0)
  • Project SEEKS SES holds first virtual community of practice around chronic absenteeism

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 8/18/2023

    Pictures of zoom attendees for a community of practice meeting

    On August 16th, the AIU and Project SEEKS SES held its first virtual community of practice meeting. The meeting — which was attended by over 40 people —revolved around chronic absenteeism. 

    Each community of practice meeting will focus on a shared topic of interest between school district, higher education and community partners. Each meeting will be facilitated by the Project SEEKS SES coordinator, Shannon Fagan, in conjunction with a school district/university partner and subject matter expert. For the full upcoming schedule, click here.

    During this inaugural meeting, Dr. Jacquelin Rankine and Dr. Dakota Peterson from Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh presented data and information gleaned from their studies in relation to chronic absenteeism, and the contributing factors.

    Afterwards, Edward Wehrer, the superintendent of the Steel Valley School District, shared his experience with chronic absenteeism, and how he and his district has tried to combat it.

    For a video of the community of practice meeting, click here. Please note that the video starts roughly ten minutes after the meeting started.

    Some relevant timestamps:

    • Dr. Jacquelin Rankine presents from 0:00-24:57
    • Dr. Dakota Peterson presents from 25:30-41:18
    • Edward Wehrer presents from 41:48-52:08
    • Further discussion afterwards
    Comments (0)
  • Project SEEKS SES brings together diverse group for second stakeholder meeting

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 8/4/2023

    The AIU and Project SEEKS SES held its second stakeholder meeting on August 4th for the wide-ranging grant, bringing together a diverse group of school district, higher education and community partners.

    Over the course of the meeting, the focus was on sharing updates and progress of the grant, chiefly on the higher education side.

    Partners from Chatham University shared plans around youth mental health first aid training, trauma and mental health talks, SEL classes and capstone student projects, among other things. The University of Pittsburgh shared plans to lift up SEL practices in communties, educate school faculty on SEL and increase the education pipeline. 

    Later on, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation shared details about the Teen Mental Health Collabroative, which led into a vendor fair that featured Gwen's Girls, the Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation, Allegheny Family Network and Highmark Caring Place, among others.

    To read a full recap of the event — with resources shared during it — click the link.

    Comments (0)
  • The Jewish Healthcare Foundation joins Project SEEKS SES as a community partner

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 8/3/2023

    The Jewish Healthcare Foundation logo

    Since 2016, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) has been focused on adolescent behavioral health as a priority public health focus area. 

    The Foundation started with a focus on health care quality improvement, and over time, the focus shifted to strengthening the community safety net for teens and involving youth voice in advocacy towards system change to help address the challenges in getting access to mental health services.

    “We quickly realized how under-resourced the system was and shifted to advocacy and involving youth voice in advocacy,” said Deborah Murdoch, a Senior Program Manager for the JHF.

    That realization sparked the inception of the Teen Mental Health Collaborative in 2020, an offshoot of the JHF that “facilitates opportunities for youth-serving organizations to share their approaches to providing emotional support, connection, and engagement for teens and to learn from one another,” according to the JHF.

    The JHF and Teen Mental Health Collaborative have joined as community partners with Project SEEKS SES, recognizing their shared goals and focus in advancing mental health services and building capacity.

    “The interest is in finding shared advocacy opportunities and capacity building and training in the mental health field,” said Murdoch.

    “The group is really interested in strengthening out of school time, school-based partnerships. We’re really excited about the focus on mental health and the opportunity for collaboration.”

    When Murdoch and Carol Frazer, a Behavioral Health Specialist for the JHF, speak about the work of the Collaborative, they often talk about the value of community-based organizations. They’ve made it a goal to strengthen those organizations and their relationships with schools, and hope to further that in partnership with SEEKS.

    “I’ve always seen the community-based organizations as being vital to what’s happening in behavioral health treatment settings because those treatment settings are really so limited in the time they spend with teens and families,” Frazier said.

    “So the community based organizations all have a real role to play in supporting teen and family mental health. I think they really go unrecognized as part of the whole continuum of care and treatment.”

    Murdoch said the Collaborative has cited the trusted relationships that these organizations have with youth and families and their creative after school programs as some of their strengths. The Collaborative, and the participating organizations, make it a focus to value youth-voice and advocacy, giving them a legitimate seat at the table to advance change.

    “We have been committed towards putting teens in the forefront and we’ve been so impressed by their thoughtfulness. They’re the ones truly leading the way,” Murdoch said.

    “I think there’s endless possibilities when you put youth in the center of the planning, and they’re not just tokens at the table.”

    With that in mind, the Collaborative has breaking down silos between community organizations and schools as a chief goal. Frazer noted that pathways of communication between these two entities can sometimes be dicey and have no formality or sustainability. 

    Bridging those sorts of gaps, though, is nothing new for the Collaborative. When they first formed, Frazer said they had to serve as a connector between community organizations, as many of them didn’t know each other. With the help of SEEKS — a wide-ranging initiative that has brought together ten school districts, three higher education institutions and countless community partners — the JHF is optimistic that they can help form even more connections.

    “A lot of systems are working in silos in trying to meet the needs the best they can, and they kind of know their language and what’s available to them,” Murdoch said. 

    “A project like SEEKS could help foster a space for these groups to come together and say, ‘this is what’s happening and this is what’s available in the community to schools.’ I think that’s a really powerful starting place for this work.”

    Comments (0)
  • McKeesport Area School District forms YESS team through Project SEEKS SES grant

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 8/1/2023

    Pressley Ridge logo

    About a year ago, McKeesport Area’s administration had heard about Pressley Ridge’s YESS (Youth Engagement Support Services) team model.

    The YESS team — which was piloted at the Penn Hills school district — focuses on helping address issues like truancy, while also assisting in de-escalation, interventions and generally trying to create a more positive environment in schools.

    While McKeesport was intrigued by the idea of contracting their own YESS team, budget concerns left them putting the idea on the backburner. Fast forward, and McKeesport now finds itself developing its own YESS team, thanks to funding from Project SEEKS SES, a partnership between the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) and the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) that addresses trauma, behavior and mental health issues in ten school districts.

    “SEEKS has been wonderful in providing these opportunities, because without it our school district would probably not have been able to implement it this year,” said Angela Cale, McKeesport Area’s Coordinator of Special Education and Alternative Services.

    McKeesport’s YESS team will be comprised of seven members — six youth engagement specialists and one lead youth engagement specialist. The team will focus on grades 6-12, with three of the members spending their time at Founder's Hall Middle School and three at the McKeesport Area Senior High School. While accessing strengths and weaknesses after the COVID-19 pandemic during asset mapping for the grant, McKeesport found that they had an acute need for further support in their targeted grades.

    “As we did our asset mapping, we saw that we had a lot of supports in our elementary school and those supports kind of fall off once you hit 6th grade,” Cale said. “We saw that when we compared suspension data, expulsion data and overall discipline data, that where those supports dropped off was where our greatest need was at.”

    Cale said decreasing out of class time will be a primary aim of the YESS team, helping address truancy and issues in a classroom that might ordinarily result in an office referral. Cale anticipates the team will assist with student entry in the morning and dismissal at the end of the day, while also hanging around in high traffic areas that might not usually have too many adults present. During classes, they will walk through the halls and keep their eyes and ears alert for issues inside or outside the classroom.

    The YESS team, Cale believes, will be tremendously helpful in not only helping support students, but taking some burden off of teachers.

    “We hope that they impact our students in school to have an increase in better grades, a decrease in behavior issues brought into the school, but also to provide support to the students about things that are available and constructive in our community, so that we eventually decrease some of the behavioral incidents that occur in the community,” Cale said.

    “They could take things that are happening in the community and meet with small groups in the school to try to quell some of those situations. They will also look at some of the students that have a higher incidence of behavior issues and work with reaching out to families and making sure that they’re checking in with those students to provide daily support.”

    Regardless of the student, providing regular check-ins and being a consistent presence is key to the YESS team’s success, said Michele Woodward, the satellite program director at Pressley Ridge. All Pressley Ridge staff is trained in de-escalation skills, restorative practices and trauma-informed care, which makes them particularly effective in being able to earn trust.

    “We take on the approach of meeting the students where they are and working from there. We don’t push them before they're ready but we are a constant presence for them,” said Woodward.

    “We give them an opportunity to seek us out when they need to. We do daily check-ins. It could be a simple just saying hello, but if you do that consistently, then over time that trust gets built and they start seeking you out.”

    Jesse Mclean, Pressley Ridge’s Executive Director of Pennsylvania, added similar thoughts, noting that Pressley Ridge data indicates that a child is much more likely to be successful if they have trust in an adult in their life.

    “We do this by trying to be very proactive in engaging with the students, and building that relationship and rapport so that they feel comfortable talking to us about things before they occur,” Mclean said.

    “As the saying goes, it takes a village in order to create an impact. We’re just trying to be that one layer, so they know when they come to school, they have an adult that they can trust.”

    Comments (0)
  • The AIU and Project SEEKS SES showcase Handle with Care to a wide audience

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 7/13/2023

    During an expansive and informative presentation, Robert Reed, the Pennsylvania executive deputy attorney general for special initiatives, highlighted the immense impact that trauma has on school-aged children.

    "Trauma is the number one cause of most childhood adversity," said Reed.

    With that being the case, Reed said it's incredibly important for educators to be trauma-informed in order to best serve children. It's that purpose that brought together a diverse group of educators and police force from throughout Allegheny County on July 13th at the AIU office.

    During the day, the group learned more about Handle with Care, a tier-one, trauma-informed intervention between schools and police. Originally piloted in West Virginia in 2013, Handle with Care provides the school or child care agency with a “heads up” when a child has been identified at the scene of a traumatic event. That way, educators know that they might have to handle the child a little differently.

    During the day, Reed spoke about the impact that trauma has on society, labeling it as a longstanding public health crisis. Afterwards, Reed ceded to Randy Cox, the Somerset Borough police chief. Cox has been instrumental in helping pilot Handle With Care in the Somerset Area School District.

    Cox lauded the effectiveness of the program, noting that since its implementation in 2021, Handle with Care has had 200 referrals. Given that number, Cox said that one in ten kids experience a traumatic event before they go to school the next day.

    "Traumatized kids tend to see their world as a riskier, more dangerous place," Cox said, when explaining the importance of Handle with Care.

    Afterwards, Dr. Monique Mawhinney and Dr. Amber Dean from the Highlands School District answered questions about how they implemented Handle with Care in their district.

    When explaining its effectiveness, Mawhinney highlighted how Handle with Care has strengthened the bond between the district and the local police, an important feat, given the instrumental role both entities serve.

    "Handle with Care has really opened up a line of communication with our police," Mawhinney said.

    Comments (0)