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NSEA president: Rural schools lacking in mental health services, facing issues with teacher retention and support

NSEA president: Rural schools lacking in mental health services, facing issues with teacher retention and support

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Education of our youth is investing in our future, according to Jenni Benson, the president of the Nebraska State Education Association. That’s why she is hopeful to tackle legislative issues affecting education during the next legislative session.

During a stop at the Star-Herald Thursday afternoon, Benson shared her thoughts on legislative issues facing school districts across the state. Benson, who has served as NSEA’s president since August 2017, is passionate about youth and education.

As part of her goal in tackling legislation, she visited communities across the state to hear the stories about what teachers and students are excelling at and areas where they need more support.

Some of the issues Benson has heard throughout her tour was mental health needs and with the Tax Equity and Educational Opportunities Support Act school funding.

“Right now, one of the biggest issues we’re hearing is just a lot about mental health needs for our students,” she said.

Benson said the association recently received a grant from the National Education Association. The plan is for NSEA to visit communities in the spring to determine what the needs are and how best to address them.

“We typically have services in some areas and lack of services in other areas and we just need to really do an overall deep dive. We hear we need mental health services. We hear that we’re lacking in services for kids and families, especially in rural Nebraska. But, what does that really mean?”

Another issues districts are facing is teacher retention and teacher support, especially in rural communities. To address the turnover, Benson said it’s about helping become certified, without lowering the standards.

“We want to grow our own teachers,” she said. “We also want to increase teacher diversity.”

Benson said statistically, there is a shortage of teachers compared to students in that career path 10 years ago.

“Over the years, we’re down 50% of kids who go into teaching in the last 10 years. Right now, we’re about 3,600 people in teaching colleges. Ten years ago, we were about 7,000.”

NSEA is also working with Senator Mike Groene on LB 147, which is called a discipline bill. Reviewing the bill’s language, the goal focuses on providing districts with services to keep everyone safe.

“It’s about behavior and safety,” she said. “Along with mental health and along with those kinds of things, we have moments in time where people are at risk. Kids are at risk, other children and students.”

NSEA representatives visited with educators, administrators and other stakeholders last year to figure out what a safe environment looks like and procedures to safely remove children from a situation. Along with that discussion, they mentioned training teachers and administrators and discussed the language needed to put into a bill.

“The bottom line is we all want all children to be successful and how do we do that in a way that ensures the needs of all kids are being met and all kids are being safe as well?” she said.

As the legislative bills go through committee and onto the floor, Benson said the challenge is getting state aid.

“How can we look at the big picture and then how do we balance this three-legged stool of property, sales and income tax to provide for school funding without relying heavily on one or the other?” she said.

While Benson said achieving such balance is difficult, she said the senators need to know what is important from constituents, so they can work to pass legislation to support those entities.

From an education perspective, Benson said just because education has functioned one way in the past, doesn’t mean that still works.

Beson said, “My bottom line is always about what do we need to do for kids, so they become the best productive citizens and the best productive investment.”

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