Superintendent Interview Series

A Continuum of Mental Health Support: A Conversation with Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD Superintendent Dr. Jim Chadwell


Daybreak Health CEO Alex Alvarado talks to Superintendents from across the country to discuss topics and trends affecting their school communities like chronic absenteeism, student mental health, academic outcomes, and more. These Superintendents represent districts from urban to rural, large to small, and range in their minority enrollment and number of students who are economically disadvantaged. Our goal is to capture different voices and perspectives on the challenges facing our schools today.

Behind every education award is a testament to years of unwavering dedication and collaborative effort––well evidenced by Dr. Jim Chadwell, Superintendent of Eagle Mountain-Saginaw (EMS) ISD. Dr. Chadwell’s recent nomination for the 2023 Texas Superintendent of the Year serves as both a milestone and a reflection of the collective spirit within his district. The Texas superintendent shared his thoughts on his leadership journey, the future of education, and the importance of integrating mental health supports such as telehealth. 

Cultures Of Excellence Transcend Hierarchies

Central to Dr. Chadwell's leadership philosophy is the cultivation of a culture of support and collaboration within the district—a culture that transcends hierarchies and fosters an environment where every voice is valued. This ethos is shaped by intentional recruitment practices: Dr. Chadwell focuses on “hiring people who are like minded, have a similar attitude and perspective, and are interested in making other people's lives better.” 

But, as Dr. Chadwell continues, “even if you have great people, they have to have a clear direction.” In EMS, the strategic planning process is a collaborative endeavor involving stakeholders from all corners of the community, using professional learning communities: “teachers that work together in order to serve their students and that is very egalitarian. It's not a hierarchical structure. It's all designed for teacher-to-teacher support.” Even though the district is, by definition, hierarchical, Dr. Chadwell and his team flatten their systems as much as possible, “to make sure that we have people involved at all levels to solve problems.” 

Through this process, the district is able to articulate its mission, beliefs, and strategic objectives, laying the groundwork for meaningful change and progress. Dr. Chadwell's emphasis on inclusivity and transparency ensures that every member of the district has a stake in its future through “fostering a culture of excellence and acknowledging that it's just not willing or wishing or hoping, but actually creating the conditions for it.” This participatory approach not only fosters a sense of ownership but also ensures that strategic priorities are aligned with the needs of students and educators.

Post-Covid Transition to SEL

One key outcome of this process has been the examination of evolving priorities within the district. When Dr. Chadwell arrived at EMS over a decade ago, he spearheaded a strategic plan focused on technological advances, but the education landscape has shifted since then. The focus has expanded beyond traditional academics to encompass the holistic development of students through personal education plans. Dr. Chadwell emphasized the importance of tailoring educational experiences to individual needs while maintaining consistency across different schools within the district. The goal? To preserve creativity while ensuring continuity in curriculum and support structures.

“We've become more specific about what that looks like,” said Dr. Chadwell. “Whether that's interest inventories or using our systems to help [students] with what they want to do at college.” He emphasized the importance of social emotional learning and proactive support, noting the emergence of new challenges in student behavior and emotional well-being. The importance of student mental health has become more of a priority in these later plans. “The effects of COVID have been profound––probably for all of us to some extent. But for some it's been incredibly profound, and their mental health was significantly affected and they're now back in school.” 

Dr. Chadwell feels it’s important that the school is able to support students through an experience that, for some, has been jarring: “I mean, you have some students that were not out of their home for an entire year. They're in a key developmental stage––maybe it's a 6 or 7 year old––and have literally never talked to another person outside of their family without a mask. And so now they're in school with 600 of their friends. Helping them with that transition, how to handle stressors, how to deal with that, has been really important.” 

Accessible Mental Health Resources for All

However, Dr. Chadwell's insights extended beyond mere acknowledgment of mental health concerns; they’ve taken concrete steps to address them. There are intervention specialists throughout the district who work with school-based counselors to address emergent and non-emergent situations. But district students face several hurdles to accessing resources: many are low income and their families simply cannot afford long-term interventions. Others might not have access to the transportation needed to see in-person therapists. “The reality is if you lived to the south of Fort Worth, you would have access to resources that you simply don't have in our area because we don't have any public transportation in our area. We don't have any mental health centers provided through the state,” said Dr. Chadwell. “Everything requires a car. And that alone can really limit families from getting the resources that they need. And so our [question] is how do we fill in the gap in that area and what can we do?” 

From EMS, the answer has come in the form of telehealth partnerships such as TCHATT (Texas Child Health Access Through Medicine). “We have that as a tool, and notice I said a tool, not the tool, because that's part of this thing––to have many tools to be able to support [everyone]. We also have an organization called Community Link. It actually started as a food pantry in our area and they've expanded through grant funding to provide counseling services to people from very young to very old.” 

Dr. Chadwell explained that they partner with organizations that use sliding scales to make their resources as accessible as possible. “The sliding scale [goes from] zero to whatever the normal fee would be for a therapist. And the zero is important because that may be the difference in somebody getting help or not. We see that particularly with children [whose families] may not have the resources, but also not understanding the cost of mental health services. Taking away that barrier is key.”

Looking toward the future, Dr. Chadwell spoke about the importance of year-round support for students. “In a few short weeks at the end of May, we close, right? Intervention counselors are not on contract by mid-June. It is really, really important that we get people into long-term support because that's who helps in June and July, right?” he said. “There's an assumption that, ‘It's June, everyone's gonna be fine.’ We have to have that continuum of support. And so a lot of what we do is referral to resources in the community.” Students don't live in a vacuum, Dr. Chadwell emphasized. The role of schools as bridges to community resources ensure that students' fundamental needs are met to facilitate optimal learning.

Dr. Chadwell left a resounding message for fellow educators: prioritize the whole child. By addressing students' diverse needs, both academic and non-academic, schools can create an environment conducive to learning and personal growth. As Dr. Chadwell looks ahead to the next chapter in the district's journey, he remains committed to balancing aspiration with pragmatism. The EMS superintendent stands as a testament to the transformative power of visionary leadership and collaborative action. Through thoughtful strategic planning, a steadfast commitment to service, and a focus on holistic student well-being, he has not only earned recognition but also paved the way for a brighter future for generations of students to come.

Downloadable Content

The State of Youth Mental Health & Our Schools

How schools are responding to the rising demand for student mental health services.