New London Students Rally to Retain Wellness Counselors Amid Budget Cuts


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NEW LONDON — Students are asking district administrators to reconsider the elimination of three wellness interventionists at the middle and high schools, arguing that their presence was improving the schools’ climate and helping students cope with day-to-day struggles.

“Before the school incorporated these positions, students’ mental health was not prioritized, and altercations were considered an everyday thing,” McKayley Francis, a 10th-grader at New London High School, told board members last week. “Now we are finally being prioritized, and the amount of altercations within the school is reducing.” 

Last week’s meeting was the latest in a series of discussions about the loss of the wellness interventionists — support staff who work on improving relationships between students, or between students and teachers, using restorative practices.  

In February, the Board of Education voted to cut two wellness interventionist positions at the high school and one at the middle school. At its March 11 meeting, the board a dozen students and teachers submitted comments emphasizing the value of the interventionists and the changes that had taken place since their hiring. Students and community members then attended a Common Council meeting, asking the body to approve the proposed school budget and add funds for the wellness counselors. 

Junior Zaraiah Gibson, who identified herself as a “newcomer” at the high school, said the interventionists helped her through her transition.  

“Coming from a different school and being in a new environment is very overwhelming, and the Wellness Center really made a difference by teaching me how to cope and handle situations. And they show I have leaders who care about me. Who knows where I or other students would be or what path we’d be on if we didn’t have the guidance they provide?” Gibson said.

Rihanna Pierre, a junior at New London High School, said she struggled through her sophomore year. However, once she met the wellness counselor, she said she found someone to confide in and a “sense of safeness.” 

Nalyce Dudley, a recent graduate from New London Multi Magnet High School who now attends Sacred Heart University, said the wellness interventionists helped her when she was struggling to balance academics and basketball. 

“Having wellness interventionists at our school were more than just mentors, they were pillars of strength during my darkest times,” Dudley said. “Their impact went far beyond the basketball court. They helped me in wellness, emphasizing the interconnect of mind, body and spirit. From teaching stress management techniques to providing nutritional advice, they gave me so many tools so that I can thrive in all aspects of life.” 

Many of the students who spoke were affiliated with the group Hearing Youth Voices, a New London-based organization encouraging local youth to engage in advocacy. 

English teacher David Bridges also expressed his support for the wellness interventionists, noting their profound impact on the school climate. He highlighted their significant assistance to the “middle class” of students, referring to teens who are neither top achievers nor facing major struggles.

“The program is a resounding success, and to shrink or eliminate large portions of this program would be bordering on disastrous,” Bridges wrote to the board.

Board Chair Elaine Adams told CT Examiner that the wellness interventionists had been funded by federal coronavirus funds, which are set to expire on Sept 30. Faced with the loss of funding, she proposed eliminating those three positions, which she said would equal about $250,000. 

Adams said she proposed eliminating the middle and high school positions because those schools had other mental health supports, including guidance counselors. In contrast, the elementary schools, which would keep their interventionists, do not have those extra support services.

“If we weren’t talking about wellness interventionists, we’d be talking about something else. There’s no easy way to address what is shaping up to be an extraordinarily difficult budget for next year,” she said.

The district is requesting a nearly 10% budget increase over last year, partly driven by the loss of $10.9 million in coronavirus funding. According to the district budget book, the district has already dropped 62 positions.

Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie told CT Examiner that the loss of federal funds had forced the district to make cuts across every department.

She also noted that she’d used Covid dollars to create a wellness department that offered a multi-tiered approach, and she said that counselors and social workers had responsibilities and roles that were different from those of the wellness interventionists. 

“Each has a different focus of their main role. All do share in the same goal of having strong relationships and mentoring opportunities with students based on individual needs,” Ritchie said. 

Ritchie said the district had a goal of connecting each student to at least one supportive adult, and said that the outpouring of support from students for the wellness interventionists showed that students were making positive connections. 

Adams said she was proud of the students for speaking up.

“The kids are doing what they absolutely should be doing. They’re advocating for what they feel they need,” she said.

Ritchie and Adams said the district was in the early stages of the budget process, and that the figures could possibly change or the district could find funding through additional grants. Adams said she would be willing to reconsider the cuts if there was money available. 

“The students have made some pretty compelling arguments about why they feel those positions are necessary, so I would certainly revisit my decision to eliminate them,” she said. “But how far we go with that really depends upon what the final revenue piece looks like.”

This story has been edited to correct comments attributed to Ritchie

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.