Hiring more school psychologists and school counselors has long been a priority for School Board members Sarah Fortney and Lisa Miller. But funding and a national shortage of applicants has been a hindrance.

Now PCPS Superintendent Frederick Heid is trying to find ways to work around those two issues. Last week, Heid urged the School Board to approve applying for a $3 million grant to help create more mental health workers in the district, in part, by growing its own.

“Polk Vision has adopted mental health as one of their priorities for the county. The sheriff’s office has also prioritized mental health and mental health supports as a priority,” Heid said. “The Health Department has partnered with all of us to look at mental health supports community-wide and so this was a great opportunity to pull all of those entities to the table for us to have a conversation.”

The superintendent was notified about the grant early in October and sent the application to Andrew Baldwin, the senior director of federal programs and grant management. The School Board voted to approve applying for the grant at last week’s meeting, with a deadline to send in the application of Nov. 3.

The district’s priorities are:

  • Recruiting at least one new mental health counselor each year for five years to serve at high-needs secondary schools
  • Giving retention stipends to current school-based mental-health staff;
  • Providing scholarships to graduating seniors to pursue those careers and return to PCPS
  • Creating cohort partnerships with local colleges and universities for teachers who want to obtain graduate degrees in mental health fields
  • Providing paid internships for internal and external candidates

“One of the barriers to adding mental health staff is the limited number of available staff with the appropriate certifications and or endorsements,” Heid told School Board members during their Oct. 25 work session. “What this grant also allows us to address is creating a pipeline for those individuals. So we brought some of our colleges, universities to the table to begin a discussion about what that might look like so that we can simultaneously add staff to schools to provide supports for students, while at the same time we’re actually recruiting students — current students — to apply to local colleges, universities to earn their degree in these areas and then subsequently come back to work for the school district.”

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Heid is writing his doctoral dissertation on adverse childhood experiences, which include:

  • Emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse
  • Emotional and/or physical neglect
  • Witnessing physical abuse
  • Witnessing substance abuse
  • A close family member with a mental illness
  • Parents separated or divorces
  • Having an incarcerated family member

A 25-year study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that “a whopping two thirds of the 17,000 people in the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study had an ACE score of at least one — 87 percent of those had more than one,” according to the website acestoohigh.com.

The study also found:

  • There is a direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, as well as depression, suicide, being violent and a victim of violence.
  • More types of trauma increased the risk of health, social and emotional problems.
  • People usually experience more than one type of trauma.

Baldwin told the School Board that the grant would be for about $3 million.  The recruitment of five additional mental health staff for five years would cost the district $1.422 million.  Over the five years, retention stipends would run just under $1 million, “respecialization” of teachers to earn a masters and or doctorate would take about $210,650 and paid internships would cost nearly $200,000.  The district would also be required to contribute $782,000, but tuition reimbursements and scholarships count toward that requirement.

“The average award size for this grant is about $1.75 million and that that’s a large amount of money,” Baldwin said. “But because we are larger than average district, we are going to have a larger than average ask for the grant.”

Numbers have grown

Three of the district’s 48 school psychologists are “regional school psychologists” and are assigned to two schools each. Two of the district’s 34 social workers are “regional school social workers” and are assigned to two schools each. 

District spokesman Jason Geary has said that school psychologists cover three or four schools, and social workers cover five or six schools each. 

The average number of school psychologists in PCPS has varied since the 2016-2017 school year:

  • 2016-17 — 43  
  • 2017-18 — 45  
  • 2018-19 — 50  
  • 2019-20 — 46  
  • 2020-21 — 44  
  • 2021-22 — 48
  • 2022-2023 — 40

Meanwhile, the number of school social workers in PCPS has held steady between 33 and 34.

  • 2016-17 — 33  
  • 2017-18 — 32  
  • 2018-19 — 33  
  • 2019-20 — 32  
  • 2020-21 — 32  
  • 2021-22 — 34
  • 2022-2023 — 33 

The district has added nine more mental health facilitators to bring the total up to 35.   

Other changes to mental health and behavior support staff employed by PCPS include:  
6 — PBIS coordinators (positive behavior intervention support) (up from five in 2020-21) 

4 — Behavior specialists (down from five in 2020-21) 

2 — Board-certified behavior analysts (up from 0 in 2020-21, but down from five last year) 

12 — Academic and behavior support teachers (down from 14 in 2020-21 and 19 last year) 

Geary said said many schools employ behavior interventionists, which are not included in the above positions. 

Student to counselor ratio below recommended range

In all, that brings the district’s ratio of psychologists and social workers to students to 1 for every 705 students, but that doesn’t include school counselors. The district has an average of 225 of those each year, who are also trained mental health professionals. This year, there are 204 school counselors.

Geary said school counselors are often the first mental health professional that students encounter at the school level, providing up to three or four counseling sessions with an individual student and/or referring students to long-term mental health professionals, as appropriate.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends no more than 500 students per school psychologist when comprehensive and preventive services are being provided. 

“Unfortunately, evidence suggests that most school districts do not meet these standards,” NASP officials said last year. “The ratio of students per school psychologist was estimated to be 1,211 to 1 in the United States in the 2019–2020 school year.” 

Baldwin said the district would love to hire an additional 20 mental health staff. “But we just don’t think that our grant would be competitive if we’re asking for too much money,” Baldwin said. “We want something that’s going to be fundable and able to be identified and for the reviewers to say, ‘Yes, we can fund that and still have money for other districts, as well.’ ”

The district’s career website shows there are currently openings for 11 counselors and two behavior interventionists.

“They don’t have time to do the things that we expect them to do — many of them are bogged down with a lot of paperwork; a lot are testing.”

School Board Member Sarah Fortney

Years-long struggle

Miller and Fortney began asking for additional mental health workers to help students during their first two months in office at the end of 2018.

Miller wanted to know in 2018 why the district was contracting out five positions for psychologists.

“That’s what I needed clarification on because, in the past, we’ve not contacted the services out,” Miller said then.

This week, Miller said the district is making progress, for instance, by hiring behavior analysts when they had none several years ago. The increase comes, in part, from an increase in state funding after the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Law was passed that required more counselors.

But there is still work to be done, Miller said: “We need more guidance counselors who can have time to actually counsel. They are often tasked with compliance-based measures and testing.”

Fortney began asking for a mental health counselor in all 150 Polk County public schools when she took office. She noted that many people hired to deal with the mental health of children had other unrelated duties piled onto them.

“They don’t have time to do the things that we expect them to do — many of them are bogged down with a lot of paperwork; a lot are testing,” Fortney said in 2018.

This week, Fortney said she was proud of her efforts and those of the school district.

“I’m thrilled that PCPS is attempting to address the staffing and compensation of our professional counselors, psychologists, social workers, and mental health,” Fortney said. “I can remember when I first brought them together in order to make a plan.  Removing silos and barriers to grow our own is paramount. I’m proud of paid internships. That was a huge barrier.”

The School Board voted 6-0 to approve the application, with Fortney absent due to a family illness. The district will find out in December if it received the grant and will immediately begin the hiring and scholarship process.

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Kimberly C. Moore

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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