Superintendent Pamela Angelakis received high marks, marking her third final evaluation. She’ll be entering into the fourth year of her five-year contract as superintendent.
Superintendant Pamela Angelakis said Angelakis said the reduction of four elementary teachers is an enrollment-driven decision rather than a budget-driven decision. (File Photo)

Angelakis at the forefront

Swampscott School Superintendent Pamela Angelakis continues to stand at the forefront of her peers across Massachusetts with her commitment to prioritizing student psychological safety.

There was a time not too long ago in education when student mental health was a concern schools touched on only briefly. A troubled student would be seen by a school psychologist but the responsibility for addressing mental health needs fell on out-of-school specialists or care arranged by the student’s family.

During her tenure in Swampscott, Angelakis has brought mental health to the forefront in Swampscott’s schools and joined the growing ranks of professionals in a variety of fields committed to destigmatizing mental health care.

With a new academic year here, she has renewed her focus on student mental health, identifying it as “the No. 1 priority of our district strategy…” That is a bold and forward-thinking stance that should be replicated in school systems — public and private — across the state.

Angelakis played crucial roles last year in introducing two school-based mental health programs.

Swampscott Integrated for Transition (SWIFT) focuses on students returning to school after absences because of serious mental health problems or medical illness. A second program, Harbor, is a special education program for students with emotional disabilities.

Quoted in an Item story, Angelakis said the success of the programs is clear — in the 2015-16 school year, the high school documented 21 student hospitalizations for mental health issues, and with SWIFT and Harbor during the 2016-17 school year, that number was cut to 11.

In addition, Angelakis said the number of the district’s special education referrals got reduced from 22 in 2015-16 to 11 in the 2016-17 school year.

“Data can’t be misconstrued,” Angelakis said. “The No. 1 benefit in these programs is that we keep our students where they belong — in our schools and in our district.”

Angelakis cited financial reasons benefiting town schools by addressing student health needs locally. But she also grasps the emotional importance of keeping troubled kids tightly connected to their community where family and friends can help them. Isolation, as Angelakis clearly understands, can make problems worse.

Mental health problems can’t be neatly separated from how well a student performs academically and how they develop extracurricular interests and social skills. Modern adolescent life is packed with family demands, peer pressure, physical and emotional growth and the increasingly pervasive alternate world of social media. Stir all of these ingredients into a pot and the mix can be volatile.

By introducing mental health and emotional care programs inside the Swampscott school district, Angelakis is saying, “These are our challenges. Meeting them must begin with us.” She is also ensuring, as data gathered by the school district concludes, that mental health programs oriented locally can encourage and promote clear communication among students, teachers, administrators, peers, parents and coaches.

Mental illness and emotional trauma were once dark secrets. Angelakis is setting an example for school leaders to shine a light on the secrets and give everyone a chance in Swampscott’s school community to honestly and openly address student needs.

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