Santa Clara County funds wellness centers for behavioral health across numerous school districts, but money issues are going to require schools to find new ways to keep them open. 

A $13.2 million wellness center expansion grant program, approved last June by the county, will help create 28 centers and expand 12 existing ones. While the county is kicking in $12.1 million, about $10 million comes from federal American Rescue Plan Act and state Mental Health Services Act dollars — one-time infusions that are about to dry up as the county wrestles with a $250 million budget shortfall. About $1.1 million comes from Valley Health Foundation.

Grants will be fully dispersed by June. A wellness center is a place for students to relax, receive counseling and get referrals to other health services. The annual cost range per wellness center is $133,333 to $300,000, which typically includes staffing, contracted support services, materials, training and equipment, according to the county.

Susan Ellenberg, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, said grant recipients were required to explain how they would maintain services going forward to qualify for the funding.

“The county dollars were specifically for one-time capital investments to get the facilities set up,” she told San José Spotlight. “It was never our intention to fund the wellness centers in an ongoing way.”

San Jose Unified School District, the largest local district that serves about 25,000 students across 41 campuses, has four wellness centers. Spokesperson Esme Bautista said in addition to offering support on campus, the centers provide community resources to families.

“Students can come to the wellness centers… to see the nurse or counselor and/or use the space to reset and calm down so they are ready to go back to class,” Bautista told San José Spotlight. “We continue to seek grant funding to help with the planning and opening of wellness centers.”

The youth mental health crisis manifests every day in schools, contributing to higher drop-out rates, student disengagement, chronic absenteeism and increased disciplinary actions.

Santa clara county Board of supervisors

Franklin-McKinley School District, which serves about 5,500 students at 16 schools, has 15 wellness centers. The average cost of operating a fully staffed wellness center is approximately $250,000, Superintendent Juan Cruz told San José Spotlight. Although the district’s budget shortfall for the 2024-25 school year is projected at $12 million, he said there aren’t plans to close any wellness centers. The district will use one-time funds from its own learning recovery grant to pay for workers, and is also seeking additional funding.

Cruz said the centers facilitate student development and the ability to successfully deal with problems, crises, or traumatic experiences.

Santa Clara County views wellness centers as critical resources. According to the 2024 Santa Clara County Children’s Data Book, a 2023-24 California Healthy Kids Survey found 36 percent of high school students experienced chronic sadness or hopelessness.

“The youth mental health crisis manifests every day in schools, contributing to higher drop-out rates, student disengagement, chronic absenteeism and increased disciplinary actions,” county officials said in a statement.

Ellenberg said students are 21 times more likely to access health services on school campuses than elsewhere. She said some of these services are Medi-Cal reimbursable and covered by students’ health insurance plans.

“The need is high. If students are struggling, or stressed or depressed, or significantly distracted by very real challenges, it’s nearly impossible for them to learn,” Ellenberg said. “Since the county has responsibility for public health and public well-being, particularly for residents who are insured by Medi-Cal… providing those services… and doing it at the schools makes sense.”

‘A powerful investment’

Imee Almazan, interim superintendent for Alum Rock Union School District in East San Jose, said the district received a grant of roughly $3.6 million to develop, launch and operate eight wellness centers and expand an existing one at Aptitud Community Academy at Goss. She said the district’s goal is to operate the centers through grant funds in the next fiscal year. The district, which serves about 8,000 students at 22 campuses, is projecting a deficit of approximately $21 million.

“The wellness centers will be a powerful investment in the health and academic potential of ARUSD students and their families,” Almazan told San José Spotlight. “The district is committed to finding the resources and funding streams to provide these critical services and opportunities to our community into the future.”

Campbell Union High School District, which serves about 8,400 students at five campuses, has five wellness centers staffed by district employees and external counselors. Superintendent Robert Bravo said the annual cost of staffing the centers is approximately $1.7 million.

Bravo said wellness centers provide places for students to de-stress and participate in activities like art therapy projects, as well as receive crucial counseling. He said the district doesn’t plan to close any centers despite a decreased budget, and will pay for the centers out of the general fund.

“The board of trustees is highly supportive of these resources and does not want to see any reductions in the 24-25 budget,” he told San José Spotlight.

On Saturday, the county held a youth wellness summit at Oak Grove High School in East Side Union High School District. Santa Clara County Youth Task Force Co-Chair Anushka Tadikonda said wellness centers show students that school administrators care about their health and well-being.

“You just need a place to relax… without having everything suffocating you,” Tadikonda told San José Spotlight.

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

This story originally appeared in San José Spotlight.