In new role, psychologist aims to make a difference in Park City schools (with video) | ParkRecord.com

In new role, psychologist aims to make a difference in Park City schools (with video)

Ben Belnap joins school district as associate superintendent of student wellness

The Park City School District recently hired Ben Belnap to fill the newly created position of associate superintendent of student wellness. Belnap, a licensed psychologist with a background in educational psychology, says he hopes to use the role to make a big difference in students lives.

Ben Belnap was not looking for a new job, and he had no intention of uprooting his family in St. George.

But then his wife saw the Park City School District's listing for its newly created associate superintendent of student wellness position. He was immediately struck by what he read. For Belnap, a licensed psychologist, it was the type of job he'd been seeking for years, a role that combined both his professional passions: school psychology and clinical work.

He didn't hesitate to apply.

"I had never even considered school administration before, but what grabbed me was 'We look at the whole student,'" he said in a recent interview. "It's honestly the first position I've seen in a school district that really focuses so heavily on the student wellness. I was like, 'This is it.' It was one of those things I just couldn't pass up."

The district recently announced the hiring of Belnap, who comes to Park City with a wealth of experience, most recently serving as behavior specialist for the Washington County School District and clinical director of assessment for a treatment center for girls in Hurricane. But this position is unlike any role he's ever filled, and it's one Andrew Caplan, a member of the Park City Board of Education, said he's uniquely suited for.

"We are thrilled to have Dr. Belnap join the Park City School District administration," Caplan said in a press release. "His wide breadth of educational and clinical experience will allow him to successfully coordinate the mental health and wellness initiatives for our district's children."

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Belnap will be tasked with overseeing departments such as the counseling staff, the special education program, student services like nursing and nutrition, as well as the district's Latino outreach efforts. Belnap said he intends to spend much of his first year examining what processes are already in place and evaluating what works and what doesn't.

Another key component of the job, however, is fostering relationships in the community. In a town like Park City, where people are eager to help the youth and are invested in their success, Belnap is hoping to harness the goodwill to provide the schools with even more resources to commit to student wellness. He said it's clear the district has already made significant inroads within the community, but he envisions creating new and deeper partnerships.

"I don't think any district can do it alone," he said. "I think this community, it seems, really understands this idea."

The importance of student wellness came into focus for Park City's school leaders in the wake of the drug overdose deaths of two 13-year-old Treasure Mountain Junior High School students last fall. Ever since, the district has ramped up its efforts to address issues like drug use and mental health, and the creation of Belnap's position was seen as the biggest step yet to ensure schools are meeting the needs of the whole student, rather than simply imparting knowledge about important dates in history and math equations.

From Belnap's perspective, wellness is the single most critical thing a school can provide. It's crucial, he said, for young people to feel like they're loved, wanted and cared for, and for schools to allocate resources to helping them overcome issues like anxiety and depression. Only once those needs are met are students adequately equipped to get down to the business of learning.

"It's first and foremost," he said of wellness. "And this is the drum I've beat my whole career, that if we don't have those things in place, it's like building a house without a foundation.

"I genuinely believe that with a lot of students in difficult situations, if at the end of the school year all we've really done is help them understand that they are safe and loved at our school, that's a successful year, even if they don't make an ounce of progress academically," he added. "Because that will come."

With the new role being his first in school administration, Belnap expects a steep learning curve over the next several months. But he's eager to get involved and to begin making a difference. Illustrating his passion for the work, he shared a story from early in his career, when he was skeptical about whether he was making an impact on his students in the Jordan School District.

One day near the end of the school year, a teenage girl who had been abused by her father divulged to Belnap how important his efforts had been to her as she tried to overcome her past. That experience, Belnap said, serves as an important reminder about the good that can be done by people who care.

"Even if you don't see it every day, you push and push and show them that, regardless of how they behave, we're still going to be here," he said. "Because you don't know. That's why I do what I do, and that's the joy of this kind of work."