This is what spearheading telehealth looks like in one of the nation’s largest districts

“There is so much that our students are dealing with,” this leader says. “It’s not just this year. It has been an ongoing impact since the pandemic, and it manifests in so many different ways.”

As a result, this Texas district has shifted its focus to allocating resources to ensure students have someone to talk to and find support in their schools to help manage their current situation.

Dr. Candice Castillo, former executive officer of student support services at Houston ISD, has helped lead one of the most impactful student-centered initiatives in the country. She is also a featured speaker at District Administration’s upcoming Superintendents Summit in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin in October. Working in the largest school district in the state, she knows a thing or two about the importance of accessibility not only for students but also families.

Houston ISD, according to Castillo, is majority Hispanic (62%) with more than 85% of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Yet, she describes the district as “resource-rich” as there is an abundance of programs available to students, including its new telehealth initiative.

Launched in late February, she says the program has received “a great response from our staff.”

“As with any first-year implementation, there’s a learning curve on the resource and how it works,” she says. “I think one of the great benefits of our telehealth program is that it can be accessed on campus but also from home.”

For instance, families of students enrolled at one of their participating schools can schedule an appointment that morning with their child and within 15-20 minutes receive a professional diagnosis, allowing them to make an “informed decision” to help them mitigate lost instructional time for their child.

So far, it has proved to be one of the most successful initiatives for a district of such magnitude.

“Before we had telehealth—because Houston is so spread out—referrals could end up being on opposite sides of where the student lives, and that created transportation barriers and the wait list taking several months, if not longer,” she explains. “Cutting that wait time to be seen by a mental health professional has also been something that our families appreciate.”

One of the most impactful aspects of this initiative, she adds, is that it’s 100% free for families, which she says is a tremendous relief considering the large number of economically disadvantaged families within the district.

“This service doesn’t require them to make any payments,” she says. “It’s available to any of the participating schools as long as there is consent on file. The provider, as with any medical visit, will work with their insurance. But if it’s not covered by their insurance, the family doesn’t get a bill. This has no direct cost to the family at all.”

“It’s truly creating a resource that can be accessed in a timely manner but doesn’t have any economic or transportation barriers,” she says. It’s simply about “minimizing those barriers so that students can access the care that they need when they need it.”

As far as implementation goes, she says it first required leadership to assess campuses and decide which ones were technologically capable of supporting such an initiative, and it expanded from there.

“Because it is technology-based, we had to look at the structure of the school and if it had the connectivity and bandwidth to host this on campus,” she explains. “We looked at the need and made a selection when it was time to roll out the first number of campuses.”

“We did have some campuses saying, ‘Hey, we also would like to do this,’ so we added more campuses to our original number based on schools that wanted to participate because they felt that they had a high need and wanted to be able to offer this to their students.”

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They’re also taking advantage of their readily available ESSER funds to support the program to ensure a successful first-year implementation.

“We want to see what the rollout looks like and then depending on the first year and a half of the program the funding source will have to be reevaluated,” she says.

Fast-forward to today, the district is now providing 77 campuses with its telehealth services, and they’re only becoming more and more inclusive.

“We really believe that this is not only providing a much-needed access for their physical and mental well-being but again also removing barriers that would otherwise prevent them from having access to physical care or mental health care in a timely, almost immediate manner,” she says. “It’s not replacing, let’s say something more in-depth that needs to be evaluated with the student, they will still have that recommendation, but that immediate need and access are met through telehealth, and that’s why we believe this truly helps.”

And according to Castillo, the district’s goal to meet students’ and families’ needs doesn’t end there. She says Houston ISD has designated time and resources toward several wraparound opportunities for community members to take advantage of, for instance, its “Great Connectors” initiative.

“We have an amazing platform that allows us to instantly receive a  form that can be filled out by the student, a teacher, anyone in the community and let us know, ‘Hey, I know of this student that is going through a hardship and they need help with groceries or they need help with school supplies or they don’t have uniforms.’ Whatever the case may be—and that goes directly to a wraparound specialist—if we have those resources readily available, that need can be met almost immediately,” she says.

In more serious cases that take more time to address, such as a death of a close family member, they conduct frequent check-ins with the student and family to better understand their situation to “move swiftly” toward identifying resources using a “meet, track and follow-up” method. Through these intentional interventions, she says they’re able to make a difference in student academics.

“It doesn’t matter if you have the best teacher in the classroom and high-quality materials … if our students’ well-being is not taken care of, they’re not going to be able to receive all of that great instruction,” she says. “We truly try to work to understand what their needs are and make it easy for them to seek support and ask for help.”

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