UMSL receives $3 million grant for new school counseling partnership with Riverview Gardens School District

Mary Edwin and Emily Brown

UMSL Assistant Professor Mary Edwin and Associate Professor Emily Brown collaborated to develop the Partnership for Antiracist Counselor Training (PACT) program, which will place 64 UMSL counseling interns in 13 high-need schools. (Photo by Derik Holtmann)

The United States is currently facing a shortage of school counselors, particularly in high-need school districts.

In the face of that challenge, the College of Education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis is deepening its commitment to increasing the number of qualified mental health professionals in schools through a new grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The federal government’s Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration program awarded the College of Education at UMSL a $3.1 million grant, which the university will use to implement an innovative partnership with the Riverview Gardens School District (RGSD) in north St. Louis County. The grant will run for five years.

The Partnership for Antiracist Counselor Training (PACT) program will place 64 UMSL counseling interns in 13 high-need schools to provide trauma-informed, antiracist social-emotional learning. They will address the mental health needs of more than 5,000 students in RGSD over the five-year period. A large portion of the funding will go toward financial support for the interns, including tuition assistance, stipends and more. The grant will also fund two doctoral-level graduate assistants.

Emily Brown, associate professor of counseling and interim chair of the Department of Education Sciences and Professional Programs, and Mary Edwin, assistant professor of counseling, collaborated on the grant proposal.

“It’s exciting on a lot of different levels,” Brown said. “It’s exciting that we’re able to have the funding to provide support for UMSL students. That’s really where most of the funding is going, for the students that are in the counseling program or that will be coming to the counseling program within the next five years. Our ability to help support their journey to becoming a counselor is really huge. Also, what’s really exciting is the amount of services that we’re able to provide to students in Riverview Gardens School District, our partner district.”

The project initially came about nearly a year ago when the school district was looking for a partner on the grant and reached out to the counseling program at UMSL.

“Emily and I looked at it and thought, ‘Yeah, this looks like a great opportunity for us to be able to provide services not just for our students but with the local school district,’” Edwin said.

The grant presented an exciting opportunity, but the turnaround time to write the proposal was a bit tight. Brown and Edwin received the offer during the last week of the fall semester in December, and the proposal was due on Jan. 27. Edwin recalled the pair working from morning until night for 12 days straight on Zoom to meet the deadline.

Their hard work and dedication paid off, though. Now students at UMSL and in Riverview Gardens will benefit for the next five years.

The PACT program has several key aims. The first priority is to increase the number of qualified school counselors and school-based mental health counselors in RGSD. Additionally, the program seeks to increase the number of school counselors from racially minoritized or diverse backgrounds. It also aims to expand the capacity of UMSL interns to deliver evidence-based counseling services to promote a culturally and linguistically inclusive and identity-safe environment for all students. The final goal is to increase RGSD students’ access to mental health services that address trauma and anxiety to improve emotional and behavioral health.

Brown said the majority of the interns will come from UMSL’s school counseling graduate program but some will also come from the clinical mental health counseling graduate program. School counseling students will complete three semesters, including about 100 hours, of clinical placements in RGSD to fulfill their practicum requirements, as well as two 300-hour field experiences. Clinical mental health counseling students will complete two semesters of clinical placements and two 300-hour field experiences.

During those placements, UMSL interns will provide individual, group and classroom counseling through a trauma-informed, antiracist social-emotional learning framework. Edwin said the program was intentionally built around that framework to address the history of generational trauma in RGSD. She said many students in the district have dealt with violence in various forms from a young age.

“Our field research has just shown consistently that social emotional learning improves multiple student outcomes – self regulation, increased attendance, lower suspension, lower violence –  so SEL as a whole is a proven, evidence-based way of helping support child development,” Edwin said. “Our goal is to then train our students to implement social emotional learning in RGSD but specifically with a trauma-informed and anti-racist lens because of our RGSD’s history.”

The program will provide generous financial support to aid UMSL students in this endeavor. School counseling students will receive tuition reimbursement for up to 24 credits, while clinical mental health counseling students will receive reimbursement for up to 18 credit hours. Both groups will also receive clinical experience stipends – $1,600 for practicums and $5,000 per semester for field experiences.

It will also cover mileage reimbursement for travel to RGSD schools and pay for background checks, additional training, memberships to the Missouri School Counselor Association and the St. Louis Suburban School Counselor Association and attendance to a professional conference.

Brown and Edwin estimate the total financial support package for school counseling students at more than $31,000 and more than $25,000 for clinical mental health counseling students. Edwin said reducing the financial burden by such a significant amount makes UMSL’s 60-credit, CACREP-accredited programs far more accessible to potential students, who might otherwise consider shorter, unaccredited programs at other schools.

The pair said UMSL is definitely focused on increasing the number of diverse students in the counseling program in the coming years through the grant, but the university also has several objectives for RGSD.

Edwin noted that in recent years RGSD has seen spikes in school suspensions as well as a significant drop in attendance. Brown and Edwin are optimistic that providing more than 40,000 hours of mental health services over the course of the PACT program will help turn the tide in those areas.

“This is a state where district attendance is tied to the funding that they get from the state,” Edwin said. “So, we certainly want to see attendance improve for RGSD, suspension rates to decrease and violent behaviors in schools to decrease.”

Currently, three counseling interns are slated to begin participating in the PACT program during the spring semester. However, Brown said she expects the program to place between 10 to 15 interns a semester in RGSD schools after this spring.

“At some point, in a couple of years, we intend to have students in every building,” Brown said. “We’re building up to that.”

The grant for the PACT program has reaffirmed the work the counseling program is doing and builds upon other recent successes, such as funding to expand services at the Play Therapy Institute.

“There’s just a lot of really positive energy in what’s going on with our training for school counseling students,” Brown said. “I think that it’s affirming for us, as well. What we’re doing and how we’re training our students is being recognized and validated.”

To complete the school counseling or the clinical mental health counseling program with possible PACT funding, potential students must apply by Oct. 1, 2024.

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