OKLAHOMA, USA — More than 300 school counselors and mental health professionals have been added to Oklahoma public schools through the state's department of education’s School Counselor Corps. Launched in 2021 by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, the corps is a three-year, $35 million initiative supported by COVID stabilization funding through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund.
Hofmeister said the School Counselor Corps is bringing much-needed services to schools, some of which have not had a single school counselor in the past.
“This is a crucial investment for our students,” Hofmeister said. “School counselors and mental health professionals play a transformative role in helping students work through adversity, achieve success in the classroom and prepare for life after high school.”
176 Oklahoma school districts have added 201 counselors, 47 licensed mental health professionals, 22 licensed clinical social workers and three recreational therapists. The schools also have filled 50 mental health positions through contracted services.
Participating districts applied for grant funding, which covers approximately 50% of the cost of the salary and benefits of the new positions. The existing grant will fund positions through the 2023-24 school year.
Jenna Jones, Executive Director of Comprehensive School Counseling for the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE), says some school districts have added more creative programs to help their students. Moore, Mustang and Shawnee Public Schools have added therapists to their staff to implement recreation-based mental health programs. Several other districts, including Checotah, Bixby, Morris and Grove, added a therapy dog program to serve students.
Elizabeth Suddath, OSDE assistant deputy superintendent of student support, added that the School Counselor Corps has helped to establish new community connections.
“We’re seeing school staff partner with community mental health providers and build better connections within their own schools,” she said. “School administrators are looking at wellbeing in a more comprehensive way.”
Bixby Schools added a district counseling services coordinator who has been providing support for counselors, educators and students from PreK through 12th grade. The district's educators have completed training in trauma-informed practices and Conscious Discipline, an evidence-based self-regulation program. Students in the district have participated in leadership groups, focused on their character strengths and taken part in a Be Well program. The district also partnered with Tristesse Grief Center in Tulsa to provide grief groups for students in seven of its schools.
Tishomingo Schools Superintendent Bobby Waitman says the School Counselor Corps enabled his district to employ a counselor who is fully dedicated to the many elementary students who have suffered trauma, food insecurities and a lack of support in the home. The district also added a college and career readiness coordinator to serve secondary students.
During the 2021-22 school year, the OSDE hosted more than 250 listening sessions with counselors and professionals in participating school districts. Topics discussed during these sessions include trauma-informed best practices, crisis response and intervention, family and community engagement and multi-tiered systems of support. Additional training and listening sessions will take place this school year.
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