BATTLE GROUND, Wash. — As the school year winds down, a crowd of students gathered in a classroom at Chief Umtuch Middle School in Battle Ground in a typical scene of year-end celebration.

Students chatted and laughed in a room decorated with “Despicable Me” minions. Games and puzzles were out for students to enjoy.

But underscoring the light-hearted gathering was a serious message.

“A minion things to do instead of drugs” is written on the board, a play on words using the popular yellow character from the movie series. “A minion reasons to be drug free this summer.”

This is the school’s Prevention Club, a group dedicated to discussing avoiding drugs and alcohol. It’s one of the components of Battle Ground Public School’s Project AWARE grant, a $2.5 million initiative to reduce the district’s rate of drug use and improve student mental health and — in turn — support classroom success.

The district shares a $10 million grant funded by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The AWARE effort, which stands for Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education, is a partnership between the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Battle Ground, the Shelton School District and Marysville School District.

The district received the five-year grant in 2014, and data from the statewide Healthy Youth Survey indicates the district has made gains in areas of mental health and substance abuse.

“We’re seeing really nice downward trends,” said Sandy Mathewson, the district’s director of social-emotional learning.

Since 2012, the district has seen a reduction in reports of bullying from 36.7 to 26.7 percent among eighth-graders, and from 28.2 percent to 23.3 percent among high school sophomores. Fewer students in both grades reported not feeling like they had an adult to turn to for help as well, with 22.6 percent of eighth-graders feeling they didn’t have adequate support in 2012, down to 19.3 percent in 2016, and from 26.6 percent of sophomores in 2012 to 21.5 in 2016.

Students are reporting lower alcohol use, from 11.4 percent among eighth-graders reporting having consumed alcohol in the past 30 days prior to the survey in 2012, to 7.3 percent in 2016. Sophomore alcohol use dropped from 24.1 percent to 17.2 percent. Marijuana use also dropped.

District officials credit the outcomes to the “whole child” approach of the Project AWARE program.

Whole-child teaching and social-emotional learning are among the latest big buzzwords in education, but that goes back to a simple principle — the better adjusted students are, the more likely they are to learn successfully. Ron Hertel, program supervisor of social and emotional learning for OSPI, said social science research shows children whose basic needs are not met, especially those who have experienced trauma, are less likely to succeed in school.

“What schools are seeing over and over is if you spend some time developing social and emotional skills, you see clear academic gains,” he said.

Aside from programs like Chief Umtuch’s prevention club, the district has used the grant to add mental health specialists at its campuses, provide teachers with training on how to respond to mental illnesses and refer students to mental health services in the community. Last year, the district trained 244 school staff and community members in Youth Mental Health First Aid, which teaches adults to recognize the signs of mental illness in children, and this year, more than 400 students have been referred to community mental health services.

“We are seeing amazing outcomes,” Mathewson said.

District Superintendent Mark Hottowe said the work reflects a longer desire among parents of Battle Ground students for better mental health services. The district heard from concerned parents and families that there was a need for an improved community atmosphere among the Battle Ground campuses. This formalized effort has taken steps toward creating that.

“That was one of the missing links for our children,” Hottowe said.

And this is not the final step in providing mental health services to children, according to Mathewson.

“We really as a county need to come together,” she said. “This is a model of what can be done with additional services.”

Information from: The Columbian,