Q&A: Meet Melissa Di Scala, Irvine Unified’s new coordinator of mental health


During the last school year, as IUSD was in the process of creating a sweeping new accountability plan, feedback from parents, staff and other stakeholders made it clear that mental health was a high priority.

So IUSD created a brand new position — coordinator of mental health — and tapped Melissa Di Scala for the role.

Di ScalaDi Scala was a natural choice. The former social worker joined IUSD in 2011 as a school psychologist at Creekside High School, and before that she took on similar responsibilities in the Colton Joint Unified School District and the Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified School District.

Along with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Cal State Fullerton, Di Scala has a master’s degree in educational psychology and an education specialist degree in school psychology from Chapman University. (She’s currently a doctoral candidate at Alliant International University.)

We sat down with Di Scala recently to talk about her new job and the work currently underway to support the mental health needs of more than 30,000 Irvine students.

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NF: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. For starters, tell us about your new role.

MD: I’m the coordinator of mental health, crisis intervention and 504 plans. (Note: 504 plans are student accommodation plans based on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and later amended under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act.)

As far as mental health goes, we’re fortunate to have a vast amount of resources. Now it’s about building on that, identifying any gaps in our service coverage and determining if those gaps can be filled through community partnerships or university partnerships – or deciding if there are options we’ll need additional resources to cover.

That’s been the focus this year, and I’ve developed a mental health collaborative to gather input from different stakeholders to guide our work. I think the best way to go about ensuring a continuum of mental health services for students is to enlist IUSD professionals – our nurses, school counselors, school psychologists and district-level professionals – to take a look at what our needs are so that we can develop recommendations for the board. We’re also working to identify a few parents and students to join our collaborative. Their contributions will be valuable as we move into reviewing group interests and identifying options for meeting those interests.

Another part of your job is crisis-response.

Yes. We partner with the Orange County Department of Education when we have something that’s over and above what we can provide, but we also wanted to put in place a crisis-response team with our own staff. So we got that together, and it’s made up of 29 members, including school counselors, psychologists, nurses and our Project Success staff, which are counseling paraprofessionals at the secondary level. We also have some psychologist interns who have been trained and want to participate as well. Our team is now trained to respond to any traumatic event that affects a large percentage of the population. We are up and running and ready to go.

It sounds like your work, much like instruction, is data-driven.

Absolutely. Along with a needs assessment that was sent our to our principals, psychologists, counselors and nurses, we’re looking at the results of the California Healthy Kids Survey, as well as what our kids are saying. Next we will look at what our parents are reporting.

What needs are we seeing in Irvine?

We’re really seeing issues around anxiety and depression with students, primarily those in the upper elementary grades and the middle and high schools. And we’ve got to figure out how to support those needs because anxiety can take form for any number of reasons. It can be stressors in the home, peer conflicts, movement to a new city, the death of a family member – there are so many reasons behind the responses of anxiety and depression that it’s often hard to pinpoint and say, “This is the trend we’re seeing.”

We’re looking at how we can address these responses within the tiered supports that we currently provide, and what the research indicates is that schools that have implemented Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) – which our schools thankfully have – are really the gold standard of addressing school climate issues and making school a comfortable place. Infusing mental health supports within the PBIS framework takes it a step further. And so our district is really looking at multi-tiered systems of supports: addressing issues at the universal preventative level, moving into a targeted level for students who need more support and then an intensive level for students who need even more support. The goal is to fill that pyramid of supports.

What resources are available for students struggling with mental health issues?

Through the Guidance Resources department, coordinated by Jenna Berumen, we have counseling paraprofessionals that provide a general level of service at all of our school sites. Our counseling paraprofessionals were initially grant-funded, but that grant ended, and now they’re funded partially through the City of Irvine’s Measure BB funds, as well as through the IUSD general fund.​ At all of the elementary school sites, the counseling paraprofessionals follow an evidenced-based curriculum that addresses things like social skills, emotional regulation, stress management and asking for help. At this level it’s about basic coping skills.

Then at the middle and high school levels we have counseling paraprofessionals who follow a looser curriculum where they’re looking at solution-focused strategies. So if a student presents an issue with a peer, a teacher or academic concerns, we’re really looking at all of the issues and solutions to resolve that. If that works for a student, that’s great. And if the student requires more support, then a referral can be made to the Irvine Family Resource Center (IFRC). What’s nice about the IFRC is that we have two licensed professionals there who provide counseling services to students and families as needed. Parenting classes are also offered there for parents who have students with challenging behaviors. The Irvine Family Resource Center is run by Susan Holt, and it really is a wonderful support that we’ve had in place for a number of years.

If a student is struggling with an issue, where should they start?

They can start with their school and ask for the student to participate in group counseling with a counseling paraprofessional. If they require more support, then they can ask for a referral to the Irvine Family Resource Center. We also have information on the IUSD website under “Resources for Parents.” (Click here to access the district’s Guidance Resources webpage.)

How do external factors, such as technology and the economy, impact mental health?

I think as we progress and change as a society, our responses to those changes evolve. The economy affects that as well. When there’s an economic downturn, the stress level elevates. There is such a thing as healthy anxiety. However, when there are too many stressors – an economic downturn, a death in the family, a need to move – that’s a lot for a person to manage. But I think there’s an awareness now at the national, state and local levels to really look at what we are doing to support the needs of our students, and at the same time we’re trying to reduce the stigma of mental illness.

I take it you’re seeing some positive developments in that schools are more focused on addressing mental health concerns?

Yes, and Irvine is really progressive in that respect. They’ve created this position to be a general education position, really looking at the needs of all students rather than only focusing on special education students, as some districts have.

Would you consider addressing mental health issues part a movement to support the whole child?

Yes, and it’s also about eliminating barriers to learning. We’re asking, “What is getting in the way of learning?” Because that’s what we’re ultimately charged with doing – educating children. So if there’s something getting in the way of that, we want to address that the best we can.

Lastly, do you like this work?

Absolutely. It’s definitely a love of mine. Thank you for the interview.


IPSF campaign looks to raise $1.3 million for Irvine schools by New Year’s Eve


Have you heard about the Irvine Public Schools Foundation’s Annual Campaign to raise money for IUSD schools? Well, it’s netted about 90 percent of its goal with just two weeks to go, foundation officials announced today.

This year’s drive was launched back in October, and the target amount is about $1.3 million. That figure reflects how much the City of Irvine will match through its own challenge grant.

Logo.Full.Lg.Color.CenterThink of it this way: For every dollar donated to the IPSF campaign, the city will kick in an additional dollar until it has spent $1.3 million. By Wednesday, the foundation said it had raised approximately $1.17 million of that total.

That’s a lot of money, but it still leaves funding on the table, and the clock is ticking. The deadline to leverage the entire city match is Dec. 31

“We are deeply grateful for the community support of our Annual Campaign thus far,” IPSF President and CEO Neda Eaton said. “However, with 32,000 students currently enrolled in IUSD schools, we need additional funding to maintain the world-class education our community expects and our students deserve.”

The Annual Campaign represents IPSF’s primary call to action each year, reaching out to parents, community members and corporate donors. Proceeds continue to pay for instructional assistants and additional staffing hours across the district, reducing student-to-educator ratios.

IPSF is in fact the only organization that can raise funds to add teachers and instructional assistants in Irvine’s classrooms. Meanwhile, the foundation also fuels elementary music programs, science, technology and after-school classroom enrichment.

“Many Irvine residents moved to our community due to the high quality of our local schools,” Eaton said. “With the help of our community, we can reach our goal by Dec. 31 and help maintain the excellence of our schools.”

For more information, or to make a donation, click here.


How are we doing? IUSD asks parents, students to take Continuous Improvement Survey


IUSD leaders are hoping parents and students will take about 10 minutes to complete an online survey that will help identify organizational strengths and opportunities for growth.

survey2The parent version can be accessed here, and students can weigh in here. Both will accept responses through Jan. 9.

The twin surveys are part of IUSD’s ongoing drive toward continuous improvement, and in fact they were developed by the district’s Continuous Improvement Council, which comprises teachers, parents, students and administrators. The council meets annually to identify focus areas and examine how the district is carrying out the guiding principles and practices outlined in IUSD’s ever-evolving roadmap for progress — a document known as the Continuous Improvement Efforts.

Survey feedback will help inform future decisions by spotlighting trends and themes for further exploration, but individual responses will be anonymous and confidential.

For more information on IUSD’s Continuous Improvement Efforts, click here.


Board names new president, certifies financial health and approves advisory committee


The IUSD Board of Education voted unanimously to elect Lauren Brooks to a one-year term as president and Paul Bokota to a one-year term as clerk before turning its attention to the budget and other matters on Tuesday.

LaurenBrooks2The school board’s annual organizational meeting — and the final session of 2014 — began with Superintendent Terry Walker administering the oath of office to incumbent members Sharon Wallin and Ira Glasky, who were the top two vote-getters in the November election. Moments later, Brooks (pictured to the right) was announced as president, and her first act was to commend the leadership of her predecessor, Wallin.

The five-member board also approved school site liaison assignments, appointed representatives to various committees and established meeting dates through next December. The first two regular meetings of 2015 are scheduled for Jan. 13 and Feb. 3.

Latest budget update includes ‘positive’ news

Later in the evening, Assistant Superintendent John Fogarty presented a brief budget update, and the board voted unanimously to certify IUSD’s First Interim Report of 2014-15 as “positive,” meaning the district is expected to meet all of its financial obligations over the next few years.

Every school district in California is required to examine and certify its financial condition as positive, qualified or negative twice during each fiscal year. Positive is the ideal certification, while qualified indicates a district may not be able to meet its financial obligations for the current year and the two subsequent years. (A negative certification is rare and would indicate a district was unable to meet its financial obligations.)

Recognizing the volatility of the state economy and Sacramento’s heavy reliance on income taxes, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office has outlined three possible scenarios for California’s economy, ranging from a slowdown to a temporary surge. Fogarty, who oversees business services for the district, told the board that the LAO’s most likely scenario projects moderate growth through 2019-20, which may lead to steady increases for K-12 schools.

“It was very unusual for (the LAO) to have three scenarios,” Fogarty told the NewsFlash afterward. “They’ve never done that before. While things look good right now, we know they could change very quickly.”

California’s new Local Control Funding Formula, meanwhile, has increased the amount of base funding for school districts and allocated more dollars to serve English-language learners, low-income students and foster youth. Projected increases have also enabled IUSD to strategically invest the reserves it built up to weather the state’s fiscal crisis, Fogarty said.

That said, there are a number of potential challenges and uncertainties for school districts, which must take a multi-year approach to budgeting. The state’s plan to address the unfunded liability in the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, or CalSTRS, requires districts to contribute significant dollars to help close the gap, and temporary tax increases that went into effect under Proposition 30 will begin to expire in 2016, eliminating a dependable source of state revenue.

As we’ve mentioned here before, the state’s new funding model mandates that school districts develop comprehensive accountability plans with stakeholder input that show how local resources are being directed toward measurable objectives for student achievement and school climate, and because these are three-year plans, funding is often earmarked in advance. IUSD crafted its first Local Control and Accountability Plan last year and will soon be reaching out to the community to update priorities for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years while considering options for 2017-18.

Board approves new education advisory committee

Lastly, the board voted to establish a new education advisory committee that will review and discuss critical educational issues and district initiatives.

The committee, requested by board members in November, will comprise two appointees from each board member along with the superintendent, the assistant superintendent of education services, a PTA representative, three teachers, a student representative and a representative of the California School Employees Association.


Board of Education to elect a new president during final meeting of the calendar year


The IUSD Board of Education will convene for its final session of 2014 at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

As this marks the board’s annual organizational meeting, trustees will elect a new president and clerk and set meeting dates for 2015. In addition, the five-member board is scheduled to appoint school liaisons and representatives to various committees.

gavelA little later in the evening, board members will also vote to certify IUSD’s First Interim Report.

Every school district in California is required to certify its financial condition as “positive,” “qualified” or “negative” twice during each fiscal year. Positive is the ideal certification, while qualified indicates a district may not be able to meet its financial obligations for the current year and the two subsequent years. A negative certification indicates a district will not be able to meet its financial obligations.

IUSD is recommending certifying its First Interim Report as positive, meaning the district is in solid financial shape.

Lastly, the board will vote on a recommendation to form a new education advisory committee to review and discuss critical educational issues and district initiatives.

This type of committee was requested by board members at their meeting last month. As proposed, it would include board appointees, the superintendent, the assistant superintendent of education services and representatives from the PTA, the Irvine Teachers Association and the California School Employees Association.

As usual, Tuesday’s meeting will be held at the District Office, which is located at 5050 Barranca Parkway in Irvine. To access the agenda, click here.


IPSF teams up with local businesses as part of the global #GivingTuesday movement


We wouldn’t normally urge you to head out into the rain on a school night, but hear us out on this one.

Logo.Full.Lg.Color.CenterAs part of #GivingTuesday, a global movement that encourages charitable giving, local businesses are donating a percentage of their sales to the Irvine Public Schools Foundation on Tuesday, Dec. 2. That means you can pick up some food or gifts for the family today while generously contributing to IPSF’s annual campaign, which pays for instructional assistants at the elementary level and additional staffing at Irvine’s middle and high schools.

Participating businesses include Bearfruit at the Irvine Spectrum, Bruxie, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chloe & Isabel, Chronic Tacos, The Counter, Excel360 Learning Academy, Flippin’ Pizza, Kendra Scott, KOBA Tofu Grill near UCI, Pho Saigon Pearl, Rita’s Italian Ice, Smashburger and Spade Skin Care.

Remember that all donations to IPSF will be matched by the City of Irvine through its special challenge grant, which essentially doubles each gift. So go forth and shop on behalf of local schools. Just be sure to bring an umbrella.


IUSD will seek input from local stakeholders during update of accountability plan


Parents, teachers, students, staff and community members are once again being encouraged to weigh in on IUSD’s goals for achievement and school climate as the district begins the months-long process of updating its three-year Local Control and Accountability Plan.

You may recall that the LCAP was introduced last year as a requirement under California’s new funding formula, which increased local control while allocating more resources to schools that serve low-income students, English-learners and foster youth. By law, each district’s accountability plan must be submitted by July 1, outlining annual goals as well as plans for taking action and measuring progress on a number of fronts, including academic achievement, school climate, access to a broad curriculum and parent engagement.

LCAP 111914At Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting, Alan Schlichting, IUSD’s director of student support services, previewed the process that will be used to update Irvine’s plan. You can scroll through his presentation here, but essentially the timetable begins with community presentations and district communications in November and December, followed by stakeholder meetings to gather input in January and February.

In March and April, the community will get to review a draft of the LCAP and offer additional feedback, both in person and through an online survey. The school board is expected to hold a public hearing and adopt the finalized plan in May or June.

Because districts must annually develop LCAPs that cover three years, Schlichting said the task facing IUSD is to update priorities that were drafted for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, while considering options for 2017-18.

“Remembering that this is a three-year plan, many of the actions that we put into the plan are multi-year steps that will grow in cost over time,” he said, “and those have been budgeted through 2016-17.”

“We may have additional funds that are available,” he added. “We’ll learn about that with the release of the governor’s 2015-16 state budget in January, and at that point we’ll consider additional actions to our LCAP.”

Schlichting noted that IUSD is also moving forward with a number of state and local initiatives, including implementation of Common Core standards, new state assessments, the establishment of Next Generation Science Standards and technology integration. The LCAP, meanwhile, requires progress in eight areas — credentials and instructional materials, academic standards and implementation of the Common Core, parental involvement, pupil achievement, pupil engagement, school climate, access and enrollment, and pupil outcomes.

With those in mind, IUSD identified four goals for its 2014-2017 LCAP. They are: Ensure all students attain proficiency in the current content standards; ensure access to rigorous and relevant learning tools, resources and skills for all staff and students; cultivate a positive school culture and system of supports for student personal and academic growth; and communicate effectively and form strategic alliances to secure the support and resources necessary to deliver our vision.

Progress will be being measured using a number of metrics, including results from the California English Language Development Tests, universal screening assessment data, California High School Exit Exam pass rates, graduation rates, statistics that show completion of UC and CSU requirements, as well as drop-out, attendance, suspension and expulsion data.

“We’ll be sharing with the board data on how we’re progressing in those areas as we move through the year,” Schlichting said.

IUSD NewsFlash will post more LCAP information in the weeks and months ahead to promote opportunities for public input. In the meantime, you may want to peruse Tuesday night’s slide presentation, which includes details about IUSD’s objectives, along with funding information and next steps. You can also learn more by exploring these links:

IUSD’s Local Control and Accountability Plan 2014-2017
IUSD’s LCFF and LCAP informational webpage
California Department of Education LCFF Overview and Frequently Asked Questions
A Vision For IUSD: Irvine Unified School District’s Strategic Initiatives

Also Tuesday night:

  • The Board of Education and staff engaged in a lengthy discussion of dual language immersion programs, with a specific emphasis on Spanish, to understand the pros and cons and to determine if such a program would benefit a significant number of Irvine students. You can scroll through the accompanying slide presentation here.
  • The board also approved a formal request to the Irvine Public Schools Foundation, outlining priorities for the 2014-15 school year. Funding areas will once again focus on class-size support, music in kindergarten through the third grade, instructional assistants for music classes in grades four through six, school nurses, athletic trainers and the Naviance counseling program.

UCI invites local middle schoolers to watch college hoops and showcase math skills


Listen up, middle school math enthusiasts — especially those of you who happen to be fans of college hoops.

UCI Math Night2UC Irvine and the Irvine Public Schools Foundation are inviting IUSD middle schoolers and their families to catch a free basketball game featuring the mighty Anteaters against the University of Texas at Arlington as part of UCI’s first-ever “Mathletics Night.”

Of course, as the name implies, there’s a little bit of a twist here. During the first half, participating students will be challenged to track game statistics and calculate percentages, with the top scorers earning prizes provided by UCI.

Each IUSD middle school student — and teacher — is eligible for up to four free tickets to the game, which tips off at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 13. Additional tickets may also be purchased. Those interested should RSVP no later than Nov. 28 by clicking here.

Tickets are on a first-come, first-served basis while supplies last. For more information, click to enlarge the flier.


O.C. Register laptop program helps bring 140 Chromebook computers to IUSD


You may have already heard about the Orange County Register’s laptop program, which enables supporters of local schools to dispatch a Chromebook to their favorite K-12 campus every time they purchase a new annual subscription to the newspaper.

Well, thanks to that program — forged from a unique partnership involving the Register, FivePoint Communities and the Orange County Department of Education — 140 Samsung Chromebooks are on their way to classrooms in Irvine.

Chromebook donationIUSD Superintendent Terry Walker personally took delivery of the boxed-up computers at the District Office on Thursday, Nov. 13 during a brief ceremony that featured FivePoint Communities President and CEO Emile Haddad; FivePoint Executive Vice President Lynn Jochim; Aaron Kushner, CEO of Freedom Communications, which publishes the Register; and Dr. Al Mijares, Orange County’s superintendent of schools.

“This donation aligns with our district’s ongoing efforts to use technology to increase student engagement while maximizing the time and talents of our staff,” Walker said. “We are extremely grateful to the Orange County Register, Freedom Communications and FivePoint Communities for putting these resources in the hands of students.”

The Register has now donated more than 600 Chromebooks to 75-plus schools in Orange County since launching its laptop program in September 2013. The latest batch was made possible by FivePoint Communities, which is gifting newspaper subscriptions to new homebuyers in Irvine’s Pavilion Park — and allowing residents to decide which schools get the accompanying laptops.

“Two of our founding principles are learning and connecting,” CEO Haddad said. “This program motivates Orange County’s students and our dedicated teachers to achieve both.”

For those unfamiliar with Chromebooks, they’re cloud-based systems with solid-state drives, making them quick to power up when they’re needed. Because IUSD schools already have WiFi access, they can be used in most classrooms, allowing students to fulfill assignments in programs such as Google Apps and the Chrome browser. They can also be used to take the new web-based assessments aligned with the state’s instructional standards.

The Register’s Kushner said Chromebooks have the capability to enhance interactions with students while promoting technological proficiency.

“To the extent that we as a community can connect to one another, and unlock students’ passion for learning,” he said, “the ultimate outcome will be improving and strengthening our communities.”

Set to be divvied among 18 sites, IUSD’s Chromebooks are helping to move educators away from the traditional “computer lab” mindset toward an environment where technology can be deployed anywhere and anytime, Superintendent Walker said.

“Historically, if a teacher has wanted her students to conduct research or write papers, she has had to reserve a computer lab weeks in advance,” he said. “With Chromebooks, teachers are able to wheel them in on a cart and work seamlessly in their classroom environment.”

“It is wonderful to see the community coming together to enhance our schools’ online capabilities by supporting the laptop program,” added county Superintendent Mijares. “Technology facilitates how students can learn, collaborate and apply their knowledge toward complex subjects. The laptop program is a wonderful extension of our vision to lead the nation and the world in how we integrate technology into Orange County’s classrooms.”


Uni High theater department to bring ‘Stardust’ to the stage Nov. 19-22


Uni showThe University High School Theatre Arts Department will present “Stardust,” a comedy written by Walter Kerr, Nov. 19 through Nov. 22 in the big theater. All shows are scheduled to start at 7 p.m.

Set in 1946, “Stardust” is considered a spoof of method acting and the Actor’s Studio, following students at the Dramatic and Allied Arts as they wait for the arrival of a well-known Broadway actress who’s set to guest star in their summer repertory production.

Uni drama teacher Ranae Bettger tells us more than 50 Uni students in the cast and crew are currently working to bring the show to the stage.

Tickets are $20 for orchestra seats, $13 for general admission, $10 for Uni students with ASB cards and $7 for senior citizens and children.

You can secure your seats now at www.seatyourself.biz/iusd or by visiting the little theater — also known as Room 223 — weekdays during snack and lunchtime. Guests may also purchase tickets from the box office on the night of each show.