As Associate Superintendent of Student Support Services, it is my pleasure to pen this month’s letter in the education issue with a focus on student well-being.

Our commitment to providing a nurturing and inclusive environment for all students, including those with special needs, is at the forefront of our mission. Let’s reaffirm our dedication to supporting each student’s unique journey, ensuring they have the resources and encouragement they need to thrive.

This semester, we seek to strengthen our collaborative efforts to create an environment that fosters academic achievement, social growth and emotional well-being. We recognize that every student is unique, and we must meet their individual needs with understanding, patience and compassion. Our dedicated special education teams, teachers, and support staff are committed to tailoring their approaches to cater to our students’ diverse learning styles and abilities.

In our commitment to nurturing every aspect of your child’s development, we take a holistic education approach. We are proud to share a noteworthy mention in the latest edition of the “Pineapple Report,” where districts were evaluated based on the prevalence of chronically absent students—those missing more than 21 school days. St. Johns emerged with the lowest percentage of chronically absent students in Florida, as reflected in the data collected from the 2021-2022 school year.

The SJCSD has several programs to support students, such as CHARACTER COUNTS! Sources of Strength, Link Crew and WEB, PBIS and Capturing Kids Hearts, among others. We have also been diligently providing Youth Mental Health First Aid training to teachers and staff. Youth Mental Health First Aid is a six-to-eight-hour course that gives teachers, school staff and others instruction on how to help adolescents (ages 12-18) who are experiencing a mental health crisis or problems with addiction. The course introduces common mental health challenges for youth, reviews typical adolescent development and teaches a five-step action plan for how to help young people in both crisis and non-crisis situations.

In 1998, the St. Johns County School District selected the national character education program of CHARACTER COUNTS! as a countywide initiative to instill positive character traits in our young people. We have infused the Six Pillars of Character into our school district. CHARACTER COUNTS! is not an add-on program but a means of enhancing the school’s ability to concentrate on traditional academic goals. It’s a carefully designed, long-term, community-based strategy to embed character development goals in schools. We have been training teachers and administrators as to how CHARACTER COUNTS! can become a way of life and, in turn, become a part of our entire community.

Sources of Strength is an upstream, strength-based suicide prevention program designed to harness the power of peer social networks to change unhealthy norms and culture, ultimately preventing suicide, bullying and substance abuse. The mission of Sources of Strength is to empower a well world by increasing help-seeking behaviors and promoting connections between peers and caring adults. Sources of Strength employs eight strengths or protective factors (family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality, physical health and mental health). These boost resilience in the lives of young people, with the evidence to show that the further we move upstream to build protection and health in people’s lives, the better equipped they will be to navigate the natural ups and downs of life. Throughout the year, trained peer leaders plan and produce interactive messaging campaigns for the entire school to engage in, which fosters hope, help and strength. Some of the campaigns that St. Johns County High School peer leaders have planned and executed are focused on topics such as Gratitude, Trusted Adults, We Belong, Culture of Connection, What Helps Me and I am Stronger.

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, is a school-wide system approach to establishing a positive school culture for helping students learn and grow. PBIS increases academic performance, increases safety and decreases problematic behaviors. PBIS fosters resiliency and mental well-being by focusing on school-wide behavioral, social and life skills instruction. It also promotes a safe, nurturing school environment with consistent and clear expectations. In St. Johns County, 49% of our schools are actively implementing PBIS within their schools. It is active in nine elementary schools, five K-8 academies, six middle schools,and four high schools. Last school year, three of our schools received model school status from FLPBIS. Freedom Crossing Academy received the Gold Model School Award. R.J. Murray Middle School and Valley Ridge Academy received the Bronze Model School Award. These schools exemplified high levels of PBIS implementation with fidelity and demonstrated low rates of discipline outcomes.

As part of the five-hour Florida Required Instruction for our students for Mental and Emotional Health Education, Substance Use and Abuse Education and Child Trafficking Prevention Education, St. Johns County implemented the Character Chat videos and opportunities to discuss these crucial topics among their peers in the classroom. We included the CHARACTER COUNTS! pillars to coincide with the required instruction to help our students demonstrate mental resilience and well-being by learning to find ways to bounce back from the ups and downs and provide them with the resources to get help for themselves and others. Our Character Chat videos feature our students and their voices. Students enjoy being a part of these Character Chats and understand the importance of these topics. It is an open conversation among their peers to discuss real-world scenarios based on the required instruction topics and the Pillars of Character. Character Chat videos are shared with our students in grades 6 – 12.

In addition to these programs, our School Safety Department is committed to all students’ safety, security, health and well-being. Each St. Johns County school has an Emergency Operations Plan with incident-specific procedures that are reviewed and practiced regularly. Our school district works closely with local public safety officials using their expertise and input. Regular safety, health, security and fire inspections occur yearly in all schools. School Health Services contributes to the education system’s goals by helping to ensure that all students are healthy and ready to learn. With a nurse in every school, they function as a part of the school’s team to bridge the gap between health, wellness and learning.

Each school also has a Safety Committee and Threat Assessment Team that meet regularly to discuss safety and security issues. A Youth Resource Deputy (YRD) is assigned to every school who participates in the facilitation of required training and drills and on the school’s Threat Assessment Team. YRDs also meet with students and facilitate age-appropriate discussions at the beginning of the school year, focusing on Active Assailant Response procedures, the “Always Rules,” and Safe Zones in the classrooms.

We encourage parents and guardians to engage actively in their child’s education. Open communication between home and school plays a pivotal role in ensuring the success of our students. If you have any concerns or if there is anything we can do to enhance your child’s educational experience, please do not hesitate to reach out to your child’s teachers or our special education department.

Let’s grow together as a united school community, working to make the second semester a period of growth, achievement and well-being for all our students. With your continued support, I am confident that we will create an environment where every student can reach their fullest potential.

Thank you for your ongoing commitment to the success of our students. Here’s to a successful and rewarding second semester!

Paul Abbatinozzi
Associate Superintendent of Student Support Services
St. Johns County School District

You may also like: