Stronger Connections grants helping schools take deeper look at students' needs

Helena Public Schools
Posted at 6:33 PM, Aug 07, 2023

HELENA — Across Montana, 25 school districts are set to receive a share of more than $4 million in federal grant money, intended to improve student safety and wellness.

The state received $4.8 million in additional school funding through the Stronger Connections rant program. The Montana Office of Public Instruction passed on $4.5 million of that to districts, through a competitive subgrant process.

Helena Public Schools is one of the districts awarded a grant. District leaders say it’s an opportunity to take a deeper look at how they can better serve their students’ needs.

“It's a big lift,” said Lona Carter, school health grant facilitator for HPS. “It's a lot of work. We want to do it well.”

For about a year, Carter has been working on student health for the district – hired under a planning grant from the Montana Healthcare Foundation. She said one of her top priorities has been looking at ways to embed behavioral and mental health services into their systems, as a way to reduce barriers to accessing care.

“It was an urgent need, but it was definitely more urgent as we came out of COVID,” Carter said. “We saw the mental and behavioral health issues that our students were trying to navigate – and our staff trying to navigate with them – as we came out of the pandemic.”

She said HPS is set to receive $150,000 this year through the Stronger Connections program, and they’re qualified for another $150,000 next year. They hope to use the money to hire a consultant to evaluate their elementary and middle school systems – looking at what the district is doing well and what gaps they can find in how students get connected with support.

“We want to intervene at that earliest level so that we can give them the support that they need – so that they can stay on the right path, be happy at school, be able to engage in their education,” said Carter.

The Stronger Connections grants come out of the federal Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which included changes to gun safety regulations, as well as investments in mental health and school safety programs. The money can be used for physical safety – like emergency response plans – as well as for addressing student wellness and creating a more positive school culture.

In a grant guidance document, the state Office of Public Instruction said allowable uses could range from mental health partnerships to drug, violence and harassment prevention efforts to nutritional education and physical education activities.

“It opened the door to many, many things,” said Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen. “Recognizing our communities are so different across our state, we honored as best as we possibly could each grantee that came to the office and said ‘We would like to partake in the grant.’”

Last week, Arntzen asked the U.S. Department of Education for clarification on how the grant funding can be used. It came after national reports that, because of a provision in the Safer Communities Act that prohibited using the money for providing someone with a dangerous weapon or training them in how to use one, the funding could not support hunting or archery education programs.

Arntzen told MTN that, when they get further guidance, OPI staff will go over all of the plans from districts that received grants to ensure they meet the federal requirements.

This week, Helena Public Schools is also playing host to the annual Jeremy Bullock Safe Schools Summit, where local, state and national presenters will talk about best practices in school safety. The event is running Tuesday and Wednesday at Central Elementary School.