Appleton Area School District gets $40,000 grant for student mental health services

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APPLETON - The Appleton Area School District is getting a $40,000 grant as one of four Wisconsin districts chosen for a pilot program to help connect private philanthropy with school-based mental health initiatives.

WEA Member Benefits Foundation — a statewide insurance and financial services organization for educators — and sister organization WEA Trust selected Appleton and the other three districts to participate in the pilot because of their current student mental health services.

Appleton was chosen not only for its services but for the existing community partnerships and track record of support in the Fox Valley, said Steve Goldberg, executive director of the WEA Member Benefits Foundation.

“We’re not the one stoking the fire under this engine," Goldberg said. "School districts are hungry for this.”

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The $40,000 given to Appleton is unrestricted — Goldberg said the grant is designed to trust the school districts to decide how best the money could be used.

Polly Vanden Boogaard, Appleton's assistant superintendent of student services, said the grant validates the work Appleton is already doing for students. Supporting student mental health never ends, and this grant is just one more nudge to keep going, she said.

“$40,000 won’t solve it all," she said, but it can help better support students and families.

So far, the four pilot districts have identified two primary ways they plan to spend their funds — helping families afford mental health care and creating a more supportive school environment.

Vanden Boogaard said Appleton hopes to use the money to help families who have insurance but may not be able to afford their deductibles to get care.

The money could also be used to expand a program that was tested at Badger Elementary School last year where a therapist was on-site one day a week.

It's also a challenge grant, so Appleton is contacting local companies and organizations that may be interested in helping double the money. Goldberg said private philanthropists indicated they're willing to support student mental health but weren't sure how best to do it. The program is designed to help bridge that gap.

Vanden Boogaard said it’s important to know what funding could look like longer-term so the district can develop programs that are sustainable.

Appleton schools, like districts across the county, saw students' mental health needs exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, Vanden Boogaard said. So when it comes to school-based mental health services, she said it's not just about the number of students being helped, but making sure that the right students are being helped.

"If it helps one kid, it was well worth it to me," she said.

Reach AnnMarie Hilton at ahilton@gannett.com or 920-370-8045. Follow her on Twitter at @hilton_annmarie.

This article originally appeared on Appleton Post-Crescent: Appleton schools get grant to help mental health services for students