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How do strikers envision improving the mental health of Minneapolis students?

Educators emphasized that they want to have a complete mental health team at each school, not a rotation between a counselor, psychologist and nurse throughout the week. 

Amy Floden, a speech language clinician at Whittier Elementary, standing on the picket line near her school during the first day of the teachers strike.
Amy Floden, a speech language clinician at Whittier Elementary, standing on the picket line near her school during the first day of the teachers strike.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

Heading into the third week of the Minneapolis Public School (MPS) educator strike, negotiations are ongoing, but there still remains a large gap between what educators have demanded and the district’s counter offer. 

Some of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) and Educational Support Professional (ESP) demands are class size caps, higher starting wages for teachers and educational assistants and more mental health support for students.

Better mental health support to them means more support professionals, like social workers, psychologists, counselors and nurses at the schools. MFT is asking the district for a school social worker and a school counselor onsite at each school daily and a smaller school psychologist to student ratio.  

“From a school social work perspective, it’d be so wonderful if every school had a school counselor and a school social worker and a school psychologist and a school nurse full time,” said Daniel Perez, a social worker at Green Central Bilingual elementary. “Right now, that’s not the reality.”

Full-time staffing 

MPS mental health professionals are not at schools long enough to address all the needs of students, Perez said, their jobs are part-time, and oftentimes they move between several locations.  

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School nurse and MPS parent Angie McCracken currently works one and a half days at one school and two days at another school in the district. She says many Minneapolis elementary schools don’t have a full-time nurse, leading to problems going undiagnosed.  

“A lot of times, especially with mental health concerns, we’ll see the first signs in psychosomatic symptoms, like stomach aches, class avoidance, headaches or other things. Sometimes it takes a pattern, or it takes a couple of times with them visiting for us to recognize the pattern that maybe something else is going on,” McCracken said. “If I’m only in the building one and a half days a week, how can I establish that pattern? How can I figure out what things are going on with the students? How can I really build a relationship with students enough that they’re willing to talk to me about their mental health needs?”  

Educators emphasized that they want to have a complete mental health team at each school, not a rotation between a counselor, psychologist and nurse throughout the week. 

“Having a full mental health team is so important because we do have different roles, but overlap and to be able to collaborate with someone else, especially when there are crises, having at least two of you in the room is so critical,” said Kelsey Clark, a counselor at Minneapolis South High School. 

The strikers are asking for all MPS elementary schools to have a minimum of a .5 counselor and secondary schools to have at least one counselor, both staffed at a ratio of 1 to 250. They also are demanding a minimum of one nurse and social worker per school.  

Smaller psychologist to student ratio 

Striking educators are also asking for a smaller school psychologist to student ratio, hoping to change it from 1-to-1,000 to 1-to-500. 

Clark says a maximum of six counselors work between the 42 MPS elementary schools. While most middle and high schools have on-site counselors, MPS elementary schools do not have full-time counselors, which leaves a gap in care, Clark says. 

McCraken’s son, Chris McCraken, a junior at Roosevelt High School, said having more counselors during the transition from elementary to middle school would have been beneficial. 

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“Middle school was rough for a lot of people,” he said. “If they (the district) had enough people to take care of the kids and build a relationship with them, that would help.” 

Now, as students have returned to in-person learning following the pandemic, he and educators say the need for full-time staff is even more important.  

Increasing the need for mental health support 

Students have gone through a lot the past few years. With a pandemic that affected their families and schooling, to the area police killings of George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Amir Locke and others, and the killings of fellow students, the result of community violence, students are experiencing more mental health crises. 

McCracken, who works at Hiawatha and Howe Elementary Schools, said she has seen a lot more anxiety among elementary-aged kids. Often, young kids have panic attacks, which she says typically wouldn’t manifest until middle or high school.  

“For them to be that young and to already be having panic attacks shows a higher level of anxiety than we’ve seen before,” McCraken said. 

Her son, Chris, attended Hiawatha and Howe Elementary and then Sanford Middle School. Going back to in-person classes was eye-opening regarding the need for mental health staff. 

“Personally, during the pandemic, it’s just become more prominent how much support people need,” Chris McCraken said. “After COVID happened, I realized I can’t be in loud spaces anymore because of how much time I spent alone or how much time I spent in quiet spaces. It kind of amplified everything that was already preexisting to me.”  

He wants to have a one-on-one relationship with the counselors, something that is difficult to do if they aren’t working full time. Right now, he feels like “just one of the (many) kids.”   

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Retaining ESPs 

Educational Support Professionals (ESPs) in the MPS district have a starting salary of $24,000. The strikers want ESP pay to start at $35,000 for 90 percent of ESPs. 

If related service professionals … psychologists, school counselors, social workers, occupational therapists, physical therapists, school, social workers … if we are not necessarily being competitive in terms of pay, what’s going to draw them to Minneapolis?” Perez said.  

More than half ESPs in the district are people of color, and they have been getting the short end of the stick, Perez said. 

“People of color typically have more student debt. We cannot escape the realities of capitalism and how the system has really enacted harm against people of color, and that’s institutional,” Perez said. “If people of color have a lot more debt, then there’s also a need to have a livable wage that would allow you to eventually pay those loans off.”

Higher pay 

In addition to a higher ESP starting salary, the union wants higher pay for teachers. The average Minneapolis teacher earns about $14,000 less than an average teacher in St. Paul and receives smaller salary increases. 

Many strikers are concerned for their students because if jobs in the Minneapolis district are less desirable, teachers, nurses, ESP’s and other staff will go work elsewhere.  

“There’s a shortage of nurses in our district. We are always trying to hire, and people are leaving all the time. We pay way less than our neighboring districts,” McCracken said.  

McCraken used to work nearly full time at Children’s Masonic Hospital. Ten years ago, she started working as a school nurse because she wanted to give back to her district where she went to school. When she did that, she took a pay cut. She says the job’s taxing nature, with low pay, explains why so many people have left.  

For her, the pandemic, like in many other industries, was the breaking point. McCraken took on more job responsibilities and worked seven 12-hour days a week. The district didn’t increase her time and wouldn’t pay her overtime because it was a salaried position.  

“We were that camel. We had these things on our back, and then COVID came,” McCracken said. “All of the Christmas packages for the whole world got put on that camel’s back. And it was like legs out flat. There was nothing that we could do. And I think it became so clear to us that we couldn’t not see it anymore.”

Her son’s teachers at Roosevelt have burnt out as well. Just this year, a couple of his teachers have taken mental health breaks. 

“They’re really epic, but they’re also burning out,” Chris McCracken said. “It’s just worse when you’re really close to a teacher. And those are normally the teachers that are taking on too much and need a break, right?”

Having tired and burnt-out teachers harms the students, too, the eleventh grader said. 

“We think of them as superheroes now, but like, if they were still recharged and they felt like they knew what was happening and that they weren’t taking on too much work, I think it would be a different school. I think it would be a different district. I think overall productivity would be higher because students would reflect the energy. Cause we’re burnt out too.”

The district declined to comment on its position on the specific demands. The union also declined to comment, citing the ongoing negotiations as the reason not to comment further.

As of Monday, MPS says it has presented its last, best, and final offer to the ESP chapter. The chapter says while the offer is close, they will continue to strike.