UMass Boston Takes a Pioneering Program Statewide

For nearly a decade, under a partnership with UMass Boston and Boston Children's Hospital, the Boston Public Schools have been screening schoolchildren’s behavioral health strengths and needs. The Comprehensive Behavioral Health Model (CBHM), admired worldwide, has developed a truly impressive system to build positive social and emotional development—last year alone, supporting almost 26,000 students—and helps ensure that students in need of additional support are provided appropriate services in a timely fashion.


What do you do once you’ve developed such a powerful partnership? You share it. That’s how UMass Boston is using a grant from Boston Children’s Collaboration for Community Health. The grant will help make the BIRCh Center—which is co-housed at both UMass Boston and UMass Amherst—a state-wide resource of evidence-based interventions, professional development, and policies and protocols. The idea is to spread best practices statewide, in particular to underserved school districts.


“The state already does a lot to support kids’ mental health needs,” says Melissa Pearrow, an associate professor at UMass Boston and executive director of the BIRCh Project, “but those resources are sometimes fragmented. For instance, there can be long waits for outpatient providers.” Making those resources uniform and easier to access is a key goal.


Think of the BIRCh Project as a resource center at the two UMass campuses; built atop those universities’ expertise, it enhances the capacity of public schools to efficiently integrate behavioral health supports. It will improve access to community resources, promote greater efficiency in use of available services, and enhance the integration of non-academic supports across the school and community settings. 


Sustainability: a key factor

Moreover, improving training for education and behavioral health professionals through the public higher-ed system should result in long-term, sustainable practices—which is especially important for school systems that support the state’s under-resourced communities. 


UMass Boston is already putting the grant to work, Pearrow notes, by assessing resources in schools that have implemented the CBHM. “That way,” she says, “we can look at ratios of access” with an eye toward setting goals and expectations statewide. The funding has been used to hire a project manager and to help establish a technology infrastructure.


Additionally, the team is identifying protocols and writing documents such as confidentiality agreements that now vary from district to district but will eventually be consistent. That repository of data, documents, and resources is one way the BIRCh Project plans to gauge its success. Another is to track the uptake on its professional training offerings.


“We recognize that if we’re not intentional about increasing behavioral support for all children, the achievement gap is going to grow,” says Joseph Berger, dean of UMass Boston’s College of Education and Human Development. “We’ve got to expand our capacity to do this kind of work, and the BIRCh Project is a great vehicle for doing that. Look, when you’re really good at something, you have a responsibility to bring that knowledge to others.”

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