Utica school board candidate unveils plan on student mental health needs

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UTICA — Utica School Board candidate Tennille Knoop spoke at a press conference Wednesday, calling for action and presenting a plan to address student mental health needs across the district by pursuing state, county, and federal funding and programs.

Two seats are open on the Utica School Board, and six people are running this year. Knoop is the owner of T.K.Millo & Co., a creative agency and content provider. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and will complete a master’s in writing program from John Hopkins University in December, she said.

“Before the pandemic, our district faced obstacles like every other due to absent funding,” Knoop said. “But today, with the help of the federal government, the state, and Oneida County, we have an opportunity to accept these newfound resources and face this crisis head-on so we can begin to put a dent in the mental health crisis that the U.S. surgeon general recently declared a national emergency.”

If elected, Knoop said she’d enact a three-tiered approach to combat mental health struggles in the Utica School District. “First, we need to take a hard look at how the district allocated the $56 million we received through the American Rescue Plan,” she said. “This money was designed to address the loss of learning and mental health, yet we’ve seen no changes in regards to programs, activities, or an influx of social workers. If anything, we’ve lost them during this time.”

“With the money from the American Rescue Plan, our district needs to allocate one social worker and one psychologist to each school district to meet the mental health needs of students,” Knoop continued. “Currently, our District is at a minimal level of staffing. This funding will help our District get closer to the recommended ratio by the National Association of Social Workers of one social worker to each school building serving 250 general education students and the 1:50 ratio for students with intensive needs.”

The next step in Knopp’s plan would be to pursue funding through Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Recover from COVID School Program and apply it to creating after-school programs where small sessions can be held to “...provide an intimate and safe setting for students.”

“We also need to look into the Empire State After-School Program, in which the budget has just allocated $55 million for annual grants in high-need school districts facing high rates of poverty, childhood homelessness, and vulnerability to gang activity — exactly where we are,” Knoop added.

“These funds will provide over 34,000 students with public after-school care to engage in sports, music, and other educational programming.”

On top of this, the Oneida County Department of Mental Health has established initiatives that Knoop said she wanted the District to take advantage of.

Finally, the 2023 budget has a $2 million Positive School Climate initiative to develop pilot programs in high-need schools facing a surplus of violent incidents and suspensions. 

“This funding speaks directly to our district,” Knoop said. “Tapping into funding designed to establish a program that looks to reduce school suspensions and violence sets the precedent that we do not fail to act. It says we’re willing to take action and break the perpetual cycles of trauma that have proven to be detrimental to the development, growth, and progression of our students, our staff, and our District.”

More than anything, Knoop believes that with the right programs in place, the Utica School District can start to heal.

“Right now, our students are suffering,” she said. “Our teachers have become divided, having to stop educational instructions to tend to students in need simply because we lack adequate mental health support. Loss of instruction and eruption in a classroom creates a trickle-down effect that feeds into the development and struggles of others. I stand here in unity with students, families, and educators demanding attention be paid to our student’s needs.”

“When we bring the proper tools into our school, we set a precedent like no other.”

The school board election will be from noon to 9 p.m. Tuesday, May 17. The Utica School Budget will also be up for vote on May 17.

Additional information is available at www.uticaschools.org.

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