Despite controversy over the firing of district school counselors earlier this year, the New Haven Board of Education emphasized its efforts to improve mental health and performance through a partnership with an organization that drew community criticism in a meeting on Monday.

Integrated Wellness Group (IWG), a for-profit therapy business which aims to provide culturally relevant mental health services, has contracted with New Haven Public Schools to provide early childhood support in Head Start and run short-term programs within individual schools since 2014. At the meeting, the IWG’s CEO Maysa Akbar presented on the group’s success with Elm City students and highlighted individual students’ success stories.

“I was homeless and in the streets and didn’t quite know how to feed myself,” said Akbar. “I depended on school meals to feed me, and when I didn’t have those meals after it was tough for me. I am doing this work not just because of my training in all types of psychological places, but I am doing this work because I was one of those kids. I have a passion that goes far beyond just doing the clinical work.”

Most of IWG’s programs take place in the city’s Head Start building, where the group provides individual support for students as well as parent support services — including personal meetings with families and written reports sent to parents. The organization also coaches teachers on behavior management strategies.

Kyisha Valezquez, the IWG’s director of Consultation Services also mentioned short-term programs that IWG organizes, including literacy programs to improve reading comprehension among over-age, under-credited students. Clinicians lead social emotional after school groups which are designed to “encompass a broad spectrum of necessary life skills.”

IWG’s McKinney Vento program aims to provide individualized social services to homeless and unaccompanied youth in the New Haven district.

In January, the Board’s Finance and Operations Committee gave a last minute contract for $200,000 to IWG for their Rapid Access to Treatment program, which provides evaluations to help with treatment referrals, and their Veterans Empowering Teens Through Support program, which partners discharged veterans with at-risk youth. In the past, the Board has awarded IWG several last-minute contracts.

Still, the group has drawn criticism from community actors. A January article in the New Haven Independent drew attention to  Akbar’s close relationship with Mayor Toni Harp. Also, Board member Tamiko Jackson-McArthur has criticized the lack of documentation of results, given the high cost and lack of a competitive bidding process in contracting IWG, according to the Independent.

After the presentation, School Board President Darnell Goldson apologized to Akbar for what he saw as unfair criticism of the the IWG’s effectiveness in the school system.

“I think you are doing a terrific job,” Goldson said. “Some people are used to seeing the same thing over and over again for the last 20 years, and when something different comes along, they are not as receptive as they should be.”

In August, the district’s School Board announced its plans to cut the number of guidance counselors by one-third from their original budgeted number of 61. Both parents and teachers criticized this decision, arguing that it makes counselors unable to adequately serve the district of over 20,000 students. Community members expressed concerns for students’ emotional well-being in the coming year.

In addition, the Citywide Parent Team announced an upcoming event to help provide New Haven families with food over the holiday season. Parent Team President Krystal Augustine said that she has observed tangible examples of food insecurity in New Haven that inspired her to take action in New Haven schools.

The Citywide Parent Team will be collecting grocery store gift cards until Dec. 6 to give to families that have been identified by community members as in need.

“We have the No Child Left Behind Act and the Children Succeed Act, but what about No Child Left Hungry?,” she asked of attendees.

The Board of Education meets on the second and fourth Mondays of each month.

Carolyn .