Fifteen students won’t solve the mental health crisis in public schools, said Joni Splett, a UF school psychology associate professor.
But they’re a start.
A UF and Alachua County Public Schools grant will see 15 graduate student trainees through UF’s School Psychology, School Counseling and Mental Health Counseling programs over the next five years. The $4.8 million grant, called Gator Connect, is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and will place the trainees into elementary and middle schools that are in high need of mental health services.
In January, Florida had double the teacher vacancies it did in 2021. The same pattern follows for mental health counselors, but the Gator Connect grant could help, said Splett, a principal investigator on the project.
“We're training more people, more professionals, with a goal of keeping them around to stay in our community and reduce our vacancies,” she said.
To encourage the trainees to stay in Alachua County, she said, the program will connect them with opportunities both inside and outside UF. One way the supervisors intend to do this is through providing paid internships.
Many of Alachua’s internship programs for students in the field of education are unpaid, Splett said.
The internship stipend also allows ACPS faculty to better know the students who could soon be employed in the district, said Toni Griffin, the ACPS supervisor of School Counseling and Student Services.
“By partnering with UF … putting it in the grant where they can be in our school, see what our school does,” she said. “There's a higher possibility of retention.”
During the five-year program, the supervisors plan to send trainees into Lake Forest Elementary, Metcalfe Elementary, Idylwild Elementary, Lincoln Middle School and Howard W. Bishop Middle School.
Trainees will undergo two years of coursework and a year interning in the school district, Splett said. Three students are currently part of the program, and the last cohort of trainees will start in Fall 2024.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought the topic of mental health in schools to light, Griffin said.
“If you don't have good mental health, then your academics suffer and everything else is [going to] suffer,” she said. “It's important to focus on the total child and that includes mental health.”
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Lauren Brensel is a journalism sophomore and a metro reporter for The Alligator. In her free time, she's found going on mental health walks, being silly with friends, hiding from the public and reminding those around her that they did this song on Glee.