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Schools in rural Appalachia struggle to provide counseling services to students, and the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative has sought to fill the gap with an online resource.
Schools in rural Appalachia struggle to provide counseling services to students, and the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative has sought to fill the gap with an online resource. Credit: Nichole Dobo/The Hechinger Report

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In rural Kentucky, students go to school with people they’ve grown up with. It’s not uncommon for their teachers and principals to be family friends or even relatives. This can create a tight-knit school community, but it can also make privacy hard to come by.

Vivian Carter, a longtime teacher and principal and the current innovation coordinator at Hazard Independent Schools, in Eastern Kentucky, said students don’t always open up to the adults in the school building if they have issues at home. And as the role of counselors has changed, demanding they focus more on assessment and college advising, the time available to help students sort through personal problems has dwindled. Some schools in rural Appalachia don’t even have counselors. Budget cuts in Kentucky have hit districts hard and funding for these types of supports has disappeared.

To fill the gap and offer students a private, personalized resource, Hazard Independent Schools has turned to an online mental and behavioral health program called Ripple Effects. The district gets access for free thanks to a federal grant to the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, of which Hazard Independent Schools is a member.

The district’s middle school, where Carter was most recently the principal, has been quick to embrace the program, which boasts hundreds of modules on topics including alcohol and drug abuse, child abuse, depression and suicide, eating disorders, bullying and sexual harassment. The modules teach students how to cope and offer strategies for taking action and getting help.

It has become a common refrain among educators that if students are hungry, they won’t be able to focus on school. Carter said the same is true if students are dealing with alcoholism at home or some other problem that takes their mind off of academics.

“We worry about them doing homework when these are issues that they deal with in real life,” Carter said. “Giving them tools and resources to help them be successful is imperative for student success and their future success, too.”

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Middle school students get introduced to Ripple Effects through an advisory class, which they take once a week in small groups. They explore topics like staying organized, learning how to study and developing routines — things that make sense for whole-group instruction. That exposure, Carter said, helps them learn how to navigate the system and get a sense of the many other topics they could explore. Students have round-the-clock access to Ripple Effects as an online program, and usage data show that they do log in independently to research other topics.

“They get coping skills that really just help them be better prepared to be good students and make better decisions.”

Their browsing data is completely anonymous, so teachers can’t tell which students look up which topics, but they can see how many students log in and how much time they spend using Ripple Effects. The program also offers another layer of privacy. With one click, students can hide what they’re looking at if someone approaches them in the middle of their research.

Dessie Bowling, safe schools program director at the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, worked with the creators of Ripple Effects to tailor the program and its supports to rural students in Eastern Kentucky. They added new modules, using photos and voices of local students to create a level of familiarity. Ripple Effects originally had a more urban feel, and the Eastern Kentucky accent was nowhere to be found in voiceovers. The program’s home screen also got a new image – one of a four-wheeler and woods, instead of a city street.

Ripple Effects is used in 70 of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative’s 140 schools and is slated to be in all of them next year. Bowling said some schools embed the pre-packaged curriculum into health classes and other academic periods. Teachers having trouble with a particular student can identify the problem and sit them down with a computer and a Ripple Effects module instead of sending them to the principal’s office.

And the impact is measurable. Referrals for bad behavior are down across schools and so are mental health referrals. Bowling said her team wasn’t expecting the second effect, but they believe teachers are learning ways to support students without having to refer them to other agencies. And students, through Ripple Effects, are getting more of the mental health support they need independently.

“They get coping skills that really just help them be better prepared to be good students and make better decisions,” Bowling said.

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  1. Hello, and thank you for this pertinent and urgent study. I am a special education teacher working with SED teens in a rural setting. Our school is a very small alternate placement for students who are unsuccessful in public schools and come to us from several tiny surrounding towns. I have about 5 youth with conduct disorders. Typically, my tools (26 year vet in sped with majority in day treatment) begin to work within about 1 quarter. However, these students see no value in education, sleep for 2-6 hours daily, are not motivated by any incentives, have family patterns of “hide and protect” abuse, addiction, etc. High school credits and/or grades mean nothing, and they have no intention of graduating; no one else in their family does. All are active gang members and have been incarcerated with JDC. This is the first year for our program, and we are desperately trying to find tiny threads to move in a better direction. Any strategies, suggestions, ideas, etc., would be so welcome.

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