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.


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.

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.”

Health care officials: High temperatures and wildfire smoke could pose health risk

The Orange County Health Care Agency is advising that higher temperatures are anticipated through the weekend in many Orange County cities, increasing the risk of heat-related illnesses.

In addition, agency officials say smoke from the San Diego County wildfires could pose an added risk for some residents, noting that the South Coast Air Quality Management District has issued a Smoke Advisory for Orange County.

[UPDATE at 2:30 p.m.: The AQMD is indicating that the air quality in Irvine continues to be moderate, meaning “Air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people. For example, people who are unusually sensitive to ozone may experience respiratory symptoms.” You can continue to track the air quality for Orange County on this interactive map.]

“Everyone should take precautions to stay cool and drink plenty of water to reduce health risks related to the heat and wildfire smoke,” said Dr. Eric Handler, county health officer. “Additional precautions are especially needed for older adults, those with preexisting medical conditions like heart or lung disease, those with disabilities, children, and those who may be working outdoors.”

Here’s some other useful information from the HCA:

Heat Related Illness Signs & Symptoms:

  • Symptoms of heat exhaustion may include:  heavy sweating, muscle cramps, weakness, headache, nausea or vomiting and dizziness.
  • Warning signs of heat stroke may include: extremely high body temperature, unconsciousness, confusion, hot and dry skin (no sweating), a rapid, strong pulse, and a throbbing headache.
  • If symptoms of heat stroke occur, immediately call for medical assistance. Move the person to a shady area and begin cooling their body with water.

Precautions to Prevent Heat Related Illnesses:

  • Drink plenty of water. Don’t wait until you are thirsty.
  • Never leave children, elderly people or pets unattended in vehicles.
  • Stay cool indoors. If your home is not air conditioned, visit public facilities such as shopping malls and libraries to stay cool.
  • Check often on those at high-risk. This includes older adults, people with heart or lung disease, and young children. Be sure to check on your neighbors.
  • Avoid unnecessary sun exposure. Wear light, loose-fitting clothing, a hat, and use sunscreen.
  • Avoid unnecessary exertion outdoors. Take frequent rest and refreshment breaks in a shaded area.
  • Provide shade and extra water for your pets.

Precautions to Reduce Health Effects of Wildfire Smoke:

  • Avoid any vigorous outdoor or indoor activity.
  • People with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly, and children should remain indoors.
  • Keep the windows and doors in your home closed.
  • Use your air conditioner on the re-circulate mode, if available, to limit the intake of outdoor air and keep your home comfortable.
  • Keep your airways (nose and mouth) moist by drinking extra amounts of water. This helps your body filter out potentially harmful particles in the smoke.
  • Seek medical attention if you have symptoms such as chest pain, chest tightness, shortness of breath, or severe fatigue.


For more information on heat-related illnesses, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention websiteFor information about the South Coast Air Quality Management District Smoke Advisory, visit the AQMD website.

OC Health Care Agency offers tips for keeping cool and safe during the heat wave

Well, we don’t need to tell you that it’s been extremely hot out there this week, and Southern California is in for another scorcher today. Even in generally-mild Irvine, temperatures are expected to hit triple digits.

SunNaturally, the rising mercury increases the risk of heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, particularly for those who are more sensitive to higher temperatures. The Orange County Health Care Agency is therefore advising the following precautions:

  • Drink plenty of water, and don’t wait until you’re thirsty.
  • Wear light, loose-fitting clothing.
  • Avoid unnecessary sun exposure. When in the sun, wear a hat, preferably with a wide brim, and use sunscreen.
  • Avoid strenuous activities if you are outside or in non-air conditioned buildings. If you are working outdoors, take frequent rest and refreshment breaks in a shaded area.
  • Never leave children, elderly people or pets unattended in closed cars or other vehicles.
  • Check on those who are at a higher risk to make sure they are staying cool, including seniors who live alone, people with heart or lung disease and young children.
  • Stay cool indoors. If your home is not air-conditioned, visit public facilities including shopping malls and libraries to stay cool.

The agency says signs of heat exhaustion can include heavy sweating, muscle cramps, weakness, headache, nausea or vomiting and dizziness. If you experience these symptoms, move to a cool location, rest and drink fluids.

Warning signs of heat stroke may include an extremely high body temperature; unconsciousness; confusion; hot and dry skin with no sweating; a rapid, strong pulse; and a throbbing headache. If these symptoms are present, immediately call for medical assistance. The Health Care Agency says heat stroke victims should be moved to a shady area where their bodies can be cooled with water.

For more information on heat-related illnesses, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

State health officials recognize IUSD for its attention to indoor air quality

The Irvine Unified School District has been named a recipient of the 2012 Achievements in Respiratory (AIR) Health Awards for indoor air quality by a division of the California Department of Public Health.

In an announcement sent out this week, the agency’s California Breathing program said it was “very impressed” with the district’s efforts to improve indoor air quality and create asthma-safe environments for students and staff. IUSD was one of three districts to secure the honor, joining Oak Park Unified and Fresno Unified.

“This award serves to validate the work of our maintenance, custodial, grounds, construction and facilities teams, which constantly strive to exceed the highest standards of environmental health,” said Joe Hoffman, IUSD’s director of Maintenance and Operations. “We have always recognized that the physical environment is a critical component of learning, and recent research has underscored the connection between air quality, absenteeism and academic performance. From our perspective, nothing is more important than ensuring our students study and play in spaces that are clean, safe and conducive to learning.”

IUSD was specifically lauded for developing a “comprehensive and well-conceived approach” to maintenance and operations with policies and practices that draw from many of the best available environmental health resources. Scott Kessler, programs manager for California Breathing, also noted in a follow-up email that the district was “committed to the most rigorous and up-to-date standards for construction and maintenance of school facilities,” including those established by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, Leadership in Environmental Energy and Design and the U.S. Green Building Council.

Along with a trophy, which is scheduled to be presented at a Board of Education meeting in June, IUSD will receive $5,000 to continue its indoor air quality improvement efforts.

California Breathing is a program charged with implementing strategies tied to the California Department of Public Health’s Strategic Plan for Asthma in California. For more information, click here.

IPSF, PTAs and other organizations take different paths toward a common cause

Ever considered making a contribution to IUSD, but you’re not exactly sure who pays for what?

There are, after all, a number of organizations that exist to support Irvine schools, including the Irvine Public Schools Foundation and our local PTAs. To clarify the roles of each, Superintendent Terry Walker emailed a letter to families last week. Here’s the full text:

Dear IUSD parent:

Surveys consistently indicate that our schools are among the top reasons families move to Irvine. That means there’s a good chance you’re here because you want the best educational opportunities for your child.

As we start another year, the Irvine Unified School District remains committed to sustaining those opportunities. Yet we know from experience that California cannot be relied upon to fully fund the level of quality and enrichment that our families expect. As a result, a number of local organizations have emerged over the years to help.

Admittedly, having so many supportive organizations may be a bit confusing for parents who would like to contribute but aren’t sure how. So allow me to take a moment to clarify the roles of a few groups that contribute to our success.

Irvine Public Schools Foundation. IPSF is the only organization with the reach and resources to impact every student at every school in our district, and it relies heavily on the support of parents and corporate donors. IPSF backs districtwide initiatives, providing funding for instructional assistant hours in larger classes, along with music, nurses, health clerks and grants for teachers, counselors, science and technology. The foundation also facilitates a number of vital programs including Afterschool Classroom Enrichment (ACE), the K-8 Summer Enrichment Academy (SEA), the popular Instrument Rental Program and the Donald Bren Honors Concert.

(How to support IPSF: You can make a tax-deductible donation to IPSF at any time by visiting www.ipsf.net. Or join the 365 Partners Program to donate the equivalent of one dollar per day for your child’s education.)

Your school’s PTA. School PTA units play a critical role throughout our district, coordinating essential volunteer efforts while raising money for supplies, equipment and site-based programs, including P.E. and assemblies. PTA funds cannot be used to hire additional teachers or to reduce class sizes, but they can be used for supplemental instructional assistant hours and health clerk hours. Every IUSD school has a PTA, and there are more than 13,000 PTA members throughout Irvine. Moreover, each site PTA is a member of the Irvine Unified Council PTA, which provides training and support through monthly meetings while coordinating district-wide advocacy efforts.

(How to support the PTA: Contribute your time and talents as a PTA member, or consider making a donation.)

Classroom collections, fundraisers and booster programs. Our schools may also seek voluntary donations to pay for classroom supplies, activities and special programs such as music, art, science and athletics at the high school level. Some schools have booster clubs, which are independent and voluntary membership organizations established to support a particular club, team or program. All contributions are optional, meaning no student will be excluded from an educational opportunity if his or her family opts not to pay. But donations are always welcome, and in fact they’ve become critically important in the wake of California’s budget crisis.

(How to support your child’s school: Look for information about volunteer and donation opportunities from teachers and the organizers of your child’s favorite activities.)

Just as the word “us” is right in the middle of “IUSD,” collaboration is at the heart of this district, which was established by forward-thinking educators who settled for nothing short of world-class schools and choices for parents. Nearly 40 years later, we are incredibly fortunate to offer some of the finest academic and enrichment programs in the nation, thanks in large part to our community partnerships and generous families like yours.

Again, all monetary donations are optional, and no child will be denied an educational opportunity, regardless of whether a contribution is made. But we hope you will help carry on this district’s collaborative spirit by spreading the word about IPSF, our PTAs and the many partners that contribute greatly to the success of each student.

As always, thank you for supporting education in Irvine.


Terry L. Walker
Superintendent of Schools

New state law requires pertussis boosters for students entering grades seven through 12

As we first reported back in January, a new California law requires students entering grades seven through 12 to get immunized with a pertussis booster shot.

Though subsequent legislation now gives students an additional 30 days to get the vaccination, health experts have been advising families not to wait too long in order to avoid a last-minute crush at the doctor’s office, and Irvine parents appear to be heeding the call. By mid-July, more than 80 percent of eligible IUSD students had received their boosters and turned in the necessary paperwork.

“We want to thank our parents for responding so quickly to promote the safety of their children and this community,” said Marcia Noonan, the district’s coordinator of Health Services.

Those who have received their shots are encouraged to return the accompanying forms as soon as possible to IUSD (Attention: Health Services) at 5050 Barranca Parkway, Irvine, Calif. 92604. Or you can fax the document directly to Health Services at 949-936-7539.

Pertussis, commonly known as “whooping cough,” is a contagious disease that causes a persistent cough, which may be followed by a whooping sound when inhaling, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency. The deep cough may also be accompanied by vomiting, gagging, choking or turning blue. Pertussis is said to pose a greater risk to newborns and other vulnerable populations.

In response to a national epidemic, California passed Assembly Bill 354, mandating that children 10 years and older show proof that they’ve recently received a pertussis booster shot called “Tdap” as a condition of enrollment. The Tdap vaccination includes boosters for tetanus and diphtheria, and adults are also advised to get the shot if they haven’t already – particularly if they’re around infants. Early boosters, while effective, can weaken over time, health experts say.

For more information, please visit IUSD’s Health Services website by clicking here, or contact the department by phone at 949-936-7520. (Additionally, Health Services has a list of frequently asked questions and answers here.)

Parents can also get more information about pertussis from their family doctors or by visiting the county Health Care Agency’s website at www.ochealthinfo.com/pertussis.

Uni principal is named a ‘Champion for Character’ by the CIF’s Southern Section

Congratulations to University High School Principal John Pehrson, who has been named a “Champion for Character” by the California Interscholastic Federation’s Southern Section.

The CIF award annually recognizes the finest in sportsmanship, character, integrity and athletics in three categories: student athletes, administrators and schools. Last year, Uni coach Chris Conlin earned the accolade.

The CIF Southern Section will honor Pehrson and his fellow 2010-11 recipients at a special dinner in October.

National School Nurse Day honors the role of nurses in educational settings

It’s Wednesday, May 11, and we’d be remiss in not mentioning that today has been designated as National School Nurse Day.

Established in 1972, National School Nurse Day was created to foster a better understanding of the role of nurses in educational settings, as well as their impact on student achievement.

According to the National Association of School Nurses, more than 60,000 professionals across the country “promote health and safety; intervene with actual and potential health problems; provide case management services; and actively collaborate with others to build student/family capacity for adaptation, self management, self advocacy, and learning.”

Of course, National School Nurse Day is part of National Nurses Week, which is annually recognized May 6 through May 12. We should also point out that the latter date, May 12, is the birthday of one Florence Nightingale, who’s hailed as a pioneer of modern nursing.

Today, we’d like to express our gratitude to some other pretty important nurses – particularly Michael DuBois, Daniella Gorman, Azita Ghaderifard, Kathy Hartman, Regina Keenan, Sheri Kulungian, Samantha Lutz, Vicki McRobbieralls, Linda Mirshafiee, Janet Penny-Cook, Linda Scott-Katz and Marcia Noonan. All are members of IUSD’s nursing team, and they do a great job keeping our students healthy, safe and ready to learn.

For more information about IUSD’s Health Services department, click here, or visit www.iusd.org.