Yesterday Ken Berrick, founder and CEO of the Seneca Family of Agencies, received a 2017 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award in Sacramento. The award annually recognizes six leaders advancing innovative and effective solutions in addressing significant statewide issues. It comes with a $200,000 grant to further the work of Berrick’s organization.
Recognizing a lack of early intervention services in schools for vulnerable students facing academic, emotional, or behavioral challenges, Berrick and his staff at Seneca developed a model of “Unconditional Education.” The goal is to respond to early signs of trauma or learning disabilities and provide the integrated supports needed to keep struggling students in class and on track.
“We look at the whole-child,” said Berrick. “We think about school climate and culture, mental health and special education as a single intervention strategy and we target the earliest and most optimal points to intervene.”
Educators receive training on identifying and responding to student needs and communicate with integrated school teams that quickly and flexibly coordinate interventions and resources. Seneca’s services reached approximately 50 schools and served more than 8,000 students in California and Washington State this past year.
Berrick praised the work of the Irvine Foundation, noting the award is “more a reflection of their understanding of some of the problems we are facing and highlighting real ideas for change.”
He sees momentum building for his approach and an understanding that making progress in education or child welfare or mental health requires looking at the whole child. “This award gives broad recognition that this is the case,” said Berrick.
The grant will be used to create partnerships with private insurance providers to bring services into classrooms for students who aren’t eligible for Medi-cal. Seneca staff will also receive support through staff development, a recognition ceremony, and scholarships for employees to further their education.
Carl Finer is a freelance writer focusing on education, community development, running, and child welfare.