Recruitment & Retention

Schools Struggle to Hire Mental Health Workers. New Federal Grants Might Help

By Evie Blad — October 03, 2022 5 min read
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Even when they have the funds, school districts often struggle to hire social workers, psychologists, and school counselors, a need that has grown more urgent after disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic sparked new concerns about student mental health.

Advocates hope two newly expanded federal grant programs will help build the pipeline of candidates for those roles as schools address growing needs in student mental health and special education.

The U.S. Department of Education opened applications Monday for two grant streams—the School-Based Mental Health Services Grant Program, and the Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration Grant Program—that collectively received $1 billion over five years through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. President Joe Biden signed that law, which also included several new gun-related regulations, on June 25, about a month after a mass shooting at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school.

“We know children and youth can’t do their best learning when they’re experiencing depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges, whether they stem from community violence, social isolation from the pandemic, loss of loved ones, bullying, harassment, or something else,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

Part of an ongoing crisis

Education Week covered the student mental health crisis as part of its September Big Ideas special report. Educators said then that the issue has been building for years without adequate attention from policymakers.

Nearly 40 percent of all school districts nationally, enrolling 5.4 million students, did not have a school psychologist in the first full year of the pandemic, according to a March Education Week analysis of federal data. Just 8 percent of districts met the National Association of School Psychologists’ recommended ratio of one school psychologist to 500 students.

While most districts did have a school counselor in the 2020-21 school year, only 14 percent met the ratio of one school counselor to 250 students recommended by the American School Counselor Association.

“We know that these ratios impact the entire school,” said Karen Horn, who oversees a program to expand training for school-based mental health professionals at the Wisconsin Department of Education and was interviewed for the Big Ideas report. “Many schools aren’t even aware how understaffed they are [compared to other districts]. Pupil services staff have become overburdened and unable to significantly address all of the mental health needs of students in the school.”

Many student support staff are also busy with other responsibilities—like managing student schedules, leading schoolwide initiatives, and assessing students for special education services—leaving them less time to address individual students’ emotional and behavioral needs, educators and advocates told Education Week in September.

And new money alone will not be enough to fix the problem. Local, state, and federal lawmakers should explore longer-term funding to support training and hiring student support workers after term-limited grant funding expires, said Nicole Skaar, a professor of school psychology at the University of Northern Iowa, where she leads a “grow your own” effort to train school psychologists in rural communities.

New grants to add school counselors, psychologists, social workers

Skaar’s and Horn’s programs are funded through the types of federal grants that will be available to many more recipients thanks to a new wave of federal funding highlighted by the department Monday.

The expanded School-Based Mental Health Services grants will provide $144 million per year in competitive funding to school systems, multidistrict consortia, and states to increase the number of “credentialed school-based mental health services providers.” Under the Education Department’s grant priorities, that funding can be used for incentives to recruit or retain providers to schools with “demonstrated need” and to help existing community mental health workers obtain the training and certification necessary to take on roles in schools.

The expanded Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration grants will provide $143 million per year to help school districts partner with colleges and universities to develop innovative methods of training new school-based mental health professionals.

The priorities for both programs also call for increasing the “diversity, and cultural and linguistic competency” of school-based mental health professionals to help reflect the needs of a diverse student population.

Applicants must match 10 percent to 25 percent of their federal grant funding with local or private funding.

Both grants are expanded versions of current programs, which may provide a peek at how new funds could be spent.

In Iowa, for example, Skaar partnered with a local education cooperative, using a demonstration grant to develop a school psychology degree program for midcareer special education teachers, principals, and school counselors. The program allows candidates to learn remotely from the communities where they will eventually serve with the hopes schools will able to more easily retain them after they finish. Two cohorts of students will graduate nine new school psychologists before the grant lapses.

In Wisconsin, Horn worked with nine university programs to increase access to online courses for school-based mental health degrees with the help of a federal grant. Districts also use the funding to “remove barriers” for interested educators by covering costs like tuition to help them obtain new credentials.

A focus on recruitment and retention

Beyond expanding the pipeline of new professionals, the expanded federal grants can also help states and districts retain and recruit those who are already trained and employed by schools.

Funds from the School-Based Mental Health Services Program could be used for hiring and retention bonuses, relocation expenses, paid internships, or scholarship programs, the Education Department said in its grant priorities. The funds could also be used to pay the salaries of new staff.

Some educators and advocacy groups who weighed in on the grant priorities during a public comment period cautioned the agency that funding ongoing personnel expenses with a time-limited grant could lead to a funding cliff that makes it difficult to keep programs in place for the long term.

In response, the Education Department said “applicants should consider at the onset of the grant how they will sustain the project after the budget period ends.”

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