Boosting academics


Missouri Superintendent Nick Thiele responds to student mental-health issues proactively because he knows good mental health equals good academic achievement.

Prevention programs can enhance learning

Caruthersville Superintendent Nicholas Thiele wishes he could do more to help at-risk youngsters. So does retired Imperial Principal Neal Penberthy. Both of these Missouri school administrators have experienced the unsettling jolt of losing high-achieving students to what is almost unimaginable for educators and society alike—suicide.

“It was a tough time for us,” recalls Thiele of summer 2006 when the first of five young men in this southeast Missouri area took their lives.

Two of them were recent Caruthersville graduates, and Thiele felt the need to respond with urgency to take care of his student body in this closely knit rural area.

Among his initiatives? Forging an alliance between schools and the community to increase awareness about depression, isolation, drug and alcohol abuse—and the risk these bring for suicide.

“I wanted to get my administrators educated to watch for signs, to have their ears perk up when factors that can impact academic achievement and student well-being come to light,” notes Thiele, an advocate for boosting mental-health awareness and education in schools.

Retired 20-year principal Neal Penberthy shares Thiele’s stance. He appreciates concerns that administrators have in bringing mental-health curriculum into the classroom, but is adamant it’s not only necessary and appropriate—but life-saving.

“As a former principal, I can understand some concerns administrators have, but there’s a lot of myths out there (about adolescent suicide),” notes Penberthy. As for the loss of two of his students to suicide, Penberthy adds, “If I only would have known then what I know now. I don’t know if I could have helped one child, and I’ll never know. But I’d like to think I could have.”

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