The one thing schools never seem to have enough of is funding. In this episode, Amy Yamamoto Callahan shares her perspective as both a Ventura Union School District Trustee and a parent. Amy discusses why SEL is so important for children to develop into healthy adults, and why she’s fighting for the funding needed to provide enough wellness workers for every school in her district.
Connect with Amy on LinkedIn: Amy Yamamoto Callahan Profile
You're listening to the Voices In Education Podcast powered by Securly, where we hear from new voices and explore new ideas about how we can reimagine education to support whole student success. Education is at an inflection point. As we grapple with complex challenges like funding and enrollment, as well as diversity, equity, and safety, we also have an opportunity, an opportunity to reimagine education. Now more than ever, we know the importance that students’ overall wellbeing plays in their success. They need to feel supported and safe and connected to be able to engage in their learning and achieve their full potential. Join your host, Casey Agena, a former teacher turned instructional coach and technologist, as he interviews inspirational educators, school leaders, wellness professionals, and more to amplify their voices. You'll learn about the innovative work they're doing to support student safety, engagement, and overall wellness. And who knows, you may even spark a new idea of your own. Ready to reimagine education? Let's go.
I'm your host Casey Agena and in today's episode we’re here talking with Amy Yamamoto Callahan who provides a unique perspective on social emotional learning and digital mental health both as a trustee of Ventura School Board in Southern California, as well as the unique challenges she encounters with a different set of stakeholders: her own children. Welcome, Amy. Glad to have you here.
Hello. Aloha, Casey. Thank you so much for having me.
We had a chance to talk a little bit pre-show, but for our audience here, there are challenges, I think definitely at the decision-making level, where mental health issues, as you know, impact the young people. Particularly in your schools, in Southern California. Many times it starts with the adults surrounding them that also need the supports, whether it's the teachers, administrators, parents. So tell us a little bit about your work, your role, and why it's so vital for school leadership and decision makers to be conscious of the supports that are needed.
Casey, thank you so much for inviting me. I will give just a quick little background on my role right now. You and I met in Hawaii when I was a teacher. I don't know if we were even married yet. But I am back here in my hometown of Ventura Unified, sorry, in Ventura, California, where I was born and raised. I am here with my husband and our two daughters. One's in high school and one is in elementary school. So I always start by saying, first and foremost, I'm a parent. I am a parent. I have a family. And I have been blessed with an opportunity to serve. To serve, not only in the education technology space, around providing a collective impact model and bringing literacy to all homes from digital libraries, that is shared not only in the school libraries, but also at their very own community. So that is my role.
But I also, as you know and referenced, I serve as a trustee. Yes, I dove in. My civic education background, that really started in Hawaii when I knew you, is what I'm doing now. So I've been a trustee for the last year and a half. It's an elected position. One of the things that I am so proud to say is we serve Ventura Unified and really have students at the forefront, and specifically, their mental health. So what a pertinent topic for you to be sharing today, and invite me to share some of our thoughts and some things that we have seen here in our own little local community, but also, things that we have seen and heard and learned around the state, which I'm sure is not unique to just us here in Ventura.
Definitely. I think as both parent and decision maker, that really, maybe not convolutes things, but maybe even creates some clarity around it, because you have a vested interest as a parent, as do myself with my three kiddos. But how does that play in terms of what we're seeing around supports that kids need, the teachers in their classroom that they need? How does that influence you in terms of, "We really need to do this"?
I just appreciate, again, these questions. I appreciate that this is not an afterthought. This is not kind of something that we talk about. "Oh, yeah. We need to look at the mental health or the social-emotional wellness of a student, of a family, of the teacher, of a parent." So I'm going to get into this quickly, that this is the obvious, and I'm sure many of your guests have shared this, but the last two years have brought on such unique challenges for everyone, but I would specifically say, as a parent. Yes, you and I were both teachers. Pardon. But as parents and as caregivers, I will say, we are all the above. We are counselors. We are ensuring that our students, we are their first educator. And most importantly, we have a real temperature check and real life perspective on ensuring our family is healthy, our children are emotionally resilient.
I will tell, I really approach my work, whether it's my day job or as a trustee, or to be quite honest, as a volunteer in my child's elementary school class, that it is so obvious that, really, everything starts with social, emotional health and wellbeing. Looking at things like ... and ensuring that translates. Getting to that point of wearing these different hats and roles is ... I will tell you, nine times out of 10, I am showing up as an educator with the parent mindset first and foremost, because our kids are having to cope and are having to heal from this trauma. We don't know how long it's going to take. I don't mean to have a doomsday piece to this because I think there is hope at the end of it. And again, I'm learning more. I think one of the most important things is for us, it's mental health awareness month as parents, as educators, as stakeholders, is to share information. To make sure that mental health is not seen as a stigma or something that is negative, but to ensure ...
I just went to this webinar and they were just talking about the importance of parents practicing their own skills. That this is essential on how to understand how stress impacts our children, from anxiety to fear, to some of the signs like irritability. And that our kids, all of them, have some sort of anxiety. Have been impacted some sort between COVID. But to also give grace and space to us as parents, that we have, too. So if you are serving as an educator or as a teacher, or holding down our own jobs, we need to make sure that we're also acknowledging our reactions and our resiliency, and modeling that for our kids. Including carving out time to practice some of these skills and ways to cope, ways to heal. We are doing that ... We are doing that, I would say, as our role as a trustee. I'm only one of five. But making sure we are ... We're seeing this across California.
So with our ESSER funds, along with some of our other special funding here in California, like our Expanded Learning Opportunity, or what we call ELO or ELOP programming dollars, we have an opportunity to expand the school day. We have an opportunity to look at different educational options. Including, "Oh, by the way, yes, a counselor is important to have at every school. And yes, a health tech is also important to cross train and ensure that they know that quite possibly they need to understand what are some of the resources that we have, not just in how to look for the bandaid, but oh, we have some books that maybe we can read with some of our students that are coming in, that maybe they need to talk about feelings." Where we're really doing some wraparound services and cross training, where all stakeholders in the room, in the building, are really providing a resilient space for kids to ... and I keep saying this, but for kids to heal.
I think when we use the word heal, it gives people a sense of empathy. It gives people a sense of understanding that we need to give ... I have to do this every day, Casey, where we need to just breathe. We need to acknowledge that we have all been through something pretty hard and we don't even know what the impact is. But what we do know is that it has brought to the forefront how important it is to communicate, to share, express your feelings, to manage stress. And maybe in the long run, this is going to basically bring about a generation that is more empathetic, and has more practice in some of these skills that you or I, it didn't come up in our curricula when we were growing up.
Yep. You're right. With that perspective, I think coming in, even just for myself as a board member in another state. But one, bearing the fiscal responsibility to the school, yet knowing some of the programmatic and some of the supports that are needed, I had this, I don't know, I hate to say a weight, or whatever it may be, to know that the decisions that I make and the things that I bring up with my fellow board members and whatnot, when it's time to make a decision, that I want to be ... I want to make sure that my voice is heard there, that I'm coming with this. I think that's something, in terms of value, that they see with me. That they know that I have that background to be able to provide that lens. What we need to do as a decision maker and guiding policy, that perspective comes, I think, to the forefront when they're listening to me. How about yourself in terms of how those conversations are had?
Here in Ventura, we experienced ... I was not on the board at the time, but I was still with my organization and my company, where we are basically bringing literacy for all to every home. No matter what your area code is, you have access to right fit, high quality literature. That that's a civil right. I mean, that is something that builds healthy families and healthy communities. So we had the Thomas Fire, over a thousand homes were burnt. I will tell you, one thing that was so amazing to see during this natural disaster was our community to come together. To be honest, that's our foundation, and then comes COVID. Which came with a little more ... polarity, as far as different people's sides. But I will tell you, with us having that experience and that shared trauma, and kind of coming together as a community, it did help us, I feel.
Why I share this is because, us as policy makers, yes, I'm one in five, but I'm absolutely the voice of our district and our governing board, that this matters. There is no one who disagrees with how a kid feels, how they think of themselves, how they're able to cope with stressors is important. And by us fiscally providing and programmatically including in things like our LCAP, our Local Control Accountability Plan, ensuring that we have counselors. Social workers, Casey. I come from a family of social workers. My mom has been one, as well as all my aunties here. But to have that actually in our schools and have that as part of our fabric is pretty fascinating. I will tell you, we are all on board. We are all saying, "Yes, this is what makes sense. These are the absolute ingredients that are going to help us ..." again, I'm going to say the word again, "heal and come together." And we're going to be a better place and a better school system because of it. We both come from education, but I think looking at ... It makes a lot of sense, right?
We're looking at not so much at the depth of knowledge. We're not looking at some of these aptitude tests, as we're even seeing in college acceptances these days. We are really looking at ... When we talk about looking at the whole child, we really are looking at the neuroscience of emotion. We are talking about these components. We are looking at organizations like CASEL, Edutopia, that's bringing out articles, Education Week, Ed Source. So all of the main, solid sources are really bringing this to light. I do feel it is our responsibility to continue to advocate and echo that voice as policy makers at the table. So I am just so blessed because I happen to be part of a governing board that says, "Yes, absolutely." To a point that if there are other exemplars out there in Washington, in Hawaii, New York, we want to learn about it.
I will say that that is one piece that we all can maybe improve on, and maybe it's through your podcast, where we're sharing, talking story, connecting folks, person to person, and collaborating on what's working, what's happening. How are you ensuring that, gosh, when you need to ensure that retirements are being paid, that you're not going to not include that counselor that you just included in your programs in two or three years out? So, what does that look like? How are we going to continue to fund that? But it really is looking at the health and wellness of a child through a different lens. It's something that you and I have never seen.
Right. Yeah. Yeah. I think with all of the resources that we have at our disposal, like you mentioned, help to inform us even better on what we need to do, and then what we can do moving forward. So speaking of that moving forward, putting on ... getting your compass out, looking ahead, and thinking about, as we're closing out a school year, but then really, with our school board hats on, I mean, we're already looking in the 2022, 2023 school year. And even beyond that. I mean, we have this compass. So in terms of social-emotional learning, mental health supports, both for students, parent engagement, what are we doing in terms of supporting teachers and their burnout, and those types of pieces. Giving administrators the tools that they need to do these supports in their schools. What's out there? What's ahead that's like, "We need to be mindful of this"? Particularly in Ventura where you're at. What do you see ahead that is something that is granular to you, but definitely something that's pretty universal probably to other districts as well?
Yeah, I think that's a great question. I think that there are some ... in addition to the vision and how it's being operationalized through our mission. I just share that this is kind of a ... This isn't kind of, this is an absolute for our district. But how to do it, right? We're kind of piecing it together as well, talking about the granular, but there are some programs. So I shared that we're really looking at doubling, if not tripling, our counselors [inaudible 00:19:35] equivalent and sharing. We just learned last night that we will have health techs at every school. This is personnel. This is folks. But I think some other interesting things that have come up is, I am seeing more and more ... Not just with Title I, which we know ... Title I schools, which we know needs to have a parent education component, but that all schools have a parent education and caregiver component on, what does it mean to ... What does foster an emotional literacy look like? What does it mean? What are some questions I can ask my kid when they get back from school?
I mean, it sounds like simple things, but these are all tips and tools to be shared out. We cannot assume folks know what to do or how to do it. Really meeting them where they're at. So literally getting back to the water cooler, coffee, "Come join me for a principal coffee." Getting back to the basics of those grassroots talk story sessions where we are providing a space. In one district, it's not ours, which I would love to bring to ours, are called wisdom circles. Where we're bringing together, like in Hawaii, a kahuna. We're bringing together the grandparents, the parents, to really share, "What are some of your fears? What are some things that we can help with that?"
Another thing that I thought is also very interesting, we are brokering ... I always say brokering. Specifically, at our school. Looking at, I don't know if we have the exact match right now, but I won't say more on that, but I appreciate the attempt to look at being a concierge service. We're not social workers, but being a concierge service. That when we see that there may be an issue, or a student is, let's say, self harming, and it's coming to us. We know that we're mandated reporters, but what else can we do for that family? What else in wraparound supports?
We have a service and support that we contract out, where that's exactly what they do. I would like to see it go a little further. There's also a company called Hazel Health that actually provides the service. They actually have counselors. I mean, yes, we know that with ed tech, it has been amazing to see what we can do with our online hybrid classes. But it's also been equally amazing to see, Casey, what telehealth can look like for community schools, and providing this bridge and service that hasn't really overlaid or operated in the past. So those are areas that I feel are pretty innovative, yet accessible because of technology, and because the need is there.
Another thing that has come up, and I do think that this kind of ties back into the emotional health of a student, is when a kid is not getting good grades, or they're not engaging or not coming to school, what supports? We know our teachers are burnt out. I know this is kind of happening everywhere. We just went to Coast to Coast back in Washington, DC with the California School Board Association and AXA. There they were talking about how important and how many people are using their ESSER funds, and even ELO and ELOP dollars, around tutoring. You and I actually met when I was in the tutoring space, in Hawaii, through supplemental educational services. We know that tutoring, of course, can have all different forms. But what we know is direct instruction, one-on-one with the mentor, and preferably, probably one that looks and can relate to that student and family, is really important. So some of these things that we all kind of know are coming into fruition and promatic pieces that we just need to kind of tether and anchor into the fabric of our plan.
Yeah, I don't know. So again, we're kind of dabbling. We don't quite know what's the most effective. We have these wonderful, dream big ideas. How they're panning out, to be honest, we're going to be having a special board meeting on our board priorities, and look at, "Hey, here's a game plan." I think that's another thing that's so important for policy makers.
"Here's your game plan, but it's just a blueprint." It needs to be nimble, just like our school communities that we serve. We may need to make some adjustments here and there.
I want to highlight a couple of things that you pointed out, Amy. This really kind of rings true to even just myself. Even at a decision-making level and this idea of collective impact, stealing your words. I'm still coming from that role that I live as a parent. That's so important. When making these decisions, particularly from a fiscal standpoint, how much from a mission, vision, from the school? What's important? How's it going to impact those wraparound services? How do folks within our community see the school as this community catalyst? And what are we doing to help do that? They can look to us as decision makers, that we are listening, and we are really making the most of the abilities and the capacity that we have to move this work, particularly around mental health, social-emotional learning, and building healthy communities. So I want to thank you, Amy, for joining Voices in Education, and lending your voice to this platform.
I appreciate it. Thank you so much, Casey. Aloha.
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