Mental health enhancements on the curriculum at Eastern Allamakee Schools

By Jennifer Bissell

$216,000 grant awarded to establish “Kee Connect” 

Students in the Eastern Allamakee School District will soon have another way to improve their mental health.
The school district, which serves around 350 students, was one of six districts state-wide to receive a grant to help establish therapeutic classrooms to help students cope with social, emotional or behavioral needs. 
Eastern Allamakee received a one-time grant of $216,000, which will be used to set up two classrooms to serve its students.
About the grant
The Iowa Department of Education awarded over $1.6 million in grants to six school districts in May — Ames, Clinton, Eastern Allamakee, Hinton, Mount Pleasant and Washington. Money from the grant can be used for a variety of things, including creating new therapeutic classrooms to installing components to current classrooms and programs. 
“We were pretty flattered by it. It was pretty humbling. You probably could have heard my ‘wahoo’.It’s so moving to know we’re finally starting to talk about the mental health needs of our students,” said Sarah Updegraff, principal at the seventh through 12th grade center in Lansing. 

Kee Connect
Updegraff said the money will fund the Kee Connect program, noting that the term “therapeutic classroom” could be intimidating. The district plans to create two classrooms in the former Lansing Middle School, one for kindergarten through sixth-grade students and the other for upper-level students. Assistance will be available for two hours a day to the entire school, for two weeks up to six months or longer. 
Updegraff explained students utilizing the Kee Connect classrooms will have access to their general education needs, in addition to daily therapy, individual and group therapy and outreach to families. The district has also hired a social worker and a behavioral interventionist.
“We’re really going to be able to meet the needs of a wide variety of kids from crisis or trauma to those who might have behavioral needs that are popping up at school or home or long-term needs. That’s a lot of kids we can serve,” she said. “The unfortunate part is we have maybe 50% of the students who at some point in time have a need for mental health support past a guidance counselor. We can serve about 20 kids in this program, but we think it’s a start.”

As of right now, the grant is for one year. However, Updegraff said the district is looking at this as a “startup grant.”
“Our intent, even if the grant funds aren’t renewed, is to create a program that’s sustainable,” she said. 
Updegraff said there’s been a surge of behavioral and social/emotional mental health needs, especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. 
“A pandemic really does count as trauma in our lives and how it affects kids. We need to look at those adverse experiences and make them positive experiences by providing a way for kids to build resilience and skills.”
Since finding out about the grant at the end of May, Updegraff said they’ve been moving quickly. She, along with elementary lead teacher Donna Thomas, are working on a referral process to select students for the program. 
“We want to be super transparent about what’s available. Although there’s often a stigma attached to mental health, this is a transition program and the skills taught will also come back to the traditional setting,” said Updegraff, saying all Eastern Allamakee staff will receive training on skills and vocabulary to be more trauma-sensitive. 
Updegraff shared they hope to become a pilot program for other schools in the area, noting their doors are open and they want to share what they can. For more information, contact Updegraff at

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