South San Antonio High School students attend a school board meeting with signs to bring awareness to mental health issues.
South San Antonio High School students attend a school board meeting with signs to bring awareness to mental health issues in March 2019. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Holding signs that read “This is what a mental health patient looks like,” and “Our lives are in your hands,” a group of South San Antonio High School students stood behind their classmates, showing support as their peers urged South San Independent School District trustees to devote more resources to mental health services.

Some students teared up at the April school board meeting while others angrily demanded changes. At the time, the 9,000-student school district has just one social worker and behavior specialist, Susan Arciniega. Since then, the district has added another social worker to serve its students. Nearby districts employ more social workers; Edgewood ISD had 12 social workers on staff and Harlandale had 14 last school year.

South San ISD Behavior Specialist Susan Arciniega (right) meets with South San High School students.

“I need more help. I need more staff. We’re not here 365 days and that concerns me,” Arciniega said at the April meeting. “We are not at a preventative stage. We are at an intervention, crisis stage.”

Six months later, a new mental health resource center called the Care Zone is scheduled to open Nov. 15. Located at Athens Elementary close to New Laredo Highway, the Care Zone will provide no-cost services for students and their families from six community agencies that specialize in addressing trauma and improving mental health.

The agencies includes Communities in Schools, Family Services Association, Rise Recovery, Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas, Jewish Family Service San Antonio, and Clarity Child Guidance Center. The groups will offer counseling and therapy for a variety of mental health issues including bereavement, substance abuse, and anger management as well as provide help with parenting.

The Care Zone will allow South San to address factors outside the classroom that impact a student’s education. The new resources can help the district begin to alleviate the challenges from home that students bring onto campus, interim superintendent Dolores Sendejo said.

A new mental health resource center called the Care Zone is scheduled to open Nov. 15 in Athens Elementary School.

“People are understanding now a little bit more that mental health affects every single person,” said Talli Goldman-Dolge, the CEO of Jewish Family Services San Antonio. “If you are not addressing mental health issues or substance abuse issues, you are not addressing educational issues.”

Goldman-Dolge credits a report from The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute for Texas with providing direction for the collaborative. The April report revealed gaps in San Antonio’s “upstream” mental health services – preventative rather than reactionary resources.

Students often face barriers to receiving this kind of upstream care, Rise Recovery CEO Evita Morin added. They may not have access to transportation, nearby resources, or be aware of available resources.

Early in the summer, the group began working with South San to create the collaborative. In just a few months, the six community organizations came together to create the pilot program that will run throughout the school year. The groups have committed about $490,000 worth of services and need to raise another $305,000 to keep the center going, Goldman-Dolge said.

Students who recognized the need for better mental health resources on San Antonio’s South Side feel proud that their efforts are producing tangible change.

Recent South San High School graduate Melivia Mujica was one of the students who asked the school board for more mental health resources. Mujica, now a student at Texas A&M University-Kingsville studying pre-law and engineering, was elated to hear about the new resource center.

“We don’t have these resources in our community,” she said. “Our school is not prepared to give us these resources so in order to have healthy students and a great community we needed [the center] there. When I heard that it was finally happening, I cried.”

Arciniega is working with a three-person mental health advisory committee comprising South San High School seniors Nathaniel Soto, Marc Mendiola, and Agustin Perez to further shape the Care Zone.

(From left) South San High School students Marc Mendiola, Nathaniel Soto, and Agustin Perez

“We really want to get people from the South Side talking and knowing it’s OK to have a mental illness,” Perez said. “It’s giving them a bigger perspective of the world.”

The Care Zone also could serve as a model for other school districts that want to expand mental health resources, Mendiola said.

“When they give a presentation of ‘This is what we want,’ we could be the representation of what they want to have,” Mendiola said. “We could be the leaders of this conversation.”

The center will have therapy rooms and be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Hours will be flexible based on family needs, Arciniega said. There will also be telehealth services available to serve students or families who need to be seen immediately.

The district plans to ask families to opt-in to Care Zone services rather than wait for students to discover the services on their own, Goldman-Dolge said.

Morin praised the partnership for its focus on reaching students before they need intervention. Rise Recovery often works with students in alternative schools after they’ve dropped out or been expelled from their neighborhood campus. The goal is to reach them before they ever get there, she said.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.