Researchers at the University of Oklahoma have received a multimillion-dollar federal grant to help get more mental health resources into rural schools in Oklahoma.
“Project Rural Innovation for Mental health Enhancement,” or PRIME, aims to hire 64 mental health professionals in high-need rural Oklahoma schools. The five-year $5.6 million grant program will pay for the counselors, social workers and behavior analysts to attend graduate school, as well as cover fees and costs in the program.
In exchange, graduates agree to serve two years in a rural, high-need school for every year they received program funding.
“This is addressing critical shortages of mental health access and services for kids in our public schools, in our rural schools,” said Brittany Hott, the primary investigator for Project PRIME as well as an associate professor in the educational psychology department and associate director for the Institute for Community and Society Transformation or ICAST.
Hott told the Daily Yonder that according to a recent report from the Rural School and Community Trust, Oklahoma’s rural schools have the fourth-highest educational need in the U.S.
“We are almost double the number of students to counselor ratios that are recommended,” Hott added. “Many schools are without a school counselor, social worker, behavior analyst. We have very long waiting lists for private practice in the state. We don’t train enough counselors, social workers and behavior analysts to fill the needs.”
Still, Hott said rural schools have a lot of strengths.
“Rural schools have a strong sense of community here, or rural schools work together. They’re nimble and innovative,” she said. “We have rural districts ready to work together and faculty. And we’re going to start to address the need of growing your own. So there are teachers who may want to also serve as a behavior analyst or a counselor for a district and work within a cooperative to share a counselor across districts to serve everybody’s needs.”
Sarah Heiniger is a doctoral student at the University of Oklahoma in the educational psychology department. For Project PRIME, she is leading research on supervision and implementing a project in the public schools related to supervision for future behavior analysts, and supporting schools with challenging behavior needs. She is a board certified behavior analyst and has also been a school psychologist in the past and done private practice as well.
Heiniger told the Daily Yonder that rural students have a caring community, and the schools are the safe place in the community for these students.
“And so it kind of presents us with a really nice, unique opportunity to go support them in the place that the community trusts the most, where they can go every day and get the meal that they need, and get the caring staff and support that they need,” she said. “They just don’t have the training. So that’s where you know, we can go help these kids. And I think they’re just placed in a unique situation.”
Hott said the services are critical for kids to succeed.
“They’re (mental health services) an essential component for academic well-being for mental health,” she said. “And for students being successful after graduation and transitioning to college, being career ready, having access and opportunity. And so we were excited, we realized that it’s going to be hard work, and we realize that we’re going to learn as we’re going, but we look forward to having 64 additional clinicians in our state.”