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FAU Gets $6 Million to Increase Mental Health Counselors in Schools

Mental Health Counselor, Students, Florida, High-need Schools, Grant, U.S. Department of Education, Education, K-12

WAVES will help to reduce the gap in school counselors in high-need schools and bring the student-to-counselor ratio closer to the recommended level of 250:1.

Youth mental and emotional health is a matter of high priority in Florida. A 2019 Florida Department of Health survey showed that 12.7 percent of Florida high schoolers (grades 9 to 12) had carried a weapon; 21.2 percent were involved in a physical altercation; 24.2 percent reported having been teased about their size, weight or physical appearance; and 11.3 percent and 14.9 percent were bullied electronically or on school property, respectively.

In this same survey, 15.6 percent of Florida high school students reported they had seriously considered attempting suicide, and 33.7 percent acknowledged feeling sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in a row. Alarmingly, the 2019 survey results indicated a 50 percent increase in the suicide attempt rate for black females. These numbers demonstrate the need for timely, immediate prevention and intervention in mental health services for Florida youth.

Researchers at Florida Atlantic University have received a five-year, $6 million grant from the United States Department of Education to partner with five school districts in Florida for a project titled, the “Wellness Advocates Valuing Educators and Students” (WAVES) program. Together with Brevard Public Schools, the School District of Indian River County, the School District of Manatee County, the School District of Palm Beach County, and Polk County Public Schools, FAU will form the WAVES Network to increase the number of mental health service providers in high-need schools. 

“High student-to-school counselor ratios and the lack of sufficient highly-trained staff translates into stressful and challenging school and classroom environments, higher rates of discipline, chronic absenteeism, teacher burnout, and lower academic achievement,” said Elizabeth Villares, Ph.D., principal investigator and a professor in the Department of Counselor Education within FAU’s College of Education. “WAVES will help to reduce the gap in school counselors in high-need schools and bring the student-to-counselor ratio closer to the recommended level of 250:1 over the five-year grant period.” 

For the project, FAU will train 119 school counselors to help fill the gap in high-need schools throughout the WAVES Network. The WAVES program will reduce barriers to degree completion by significantly reducing costs for tuition, fees, books, transportation, certification exams and professional development. In addition, FAU faculty from the Department of Counselor Education will train aspiring school counselors on how to plan and deliver comprehensive school counseling programs to address students' mental health and wellness from pre-K to grade 12. School counselors also will engage in professional development and identify evidence-based interventions.

School counselors will learn how to collaborate with other support service staff such as school psychologists and social workers to deliver direct student services to support and advocate for all students' academic, social, emotional and career development. 

The WAVES program also will train school counselors from various racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds to create invaluable opportunities for students enrolled in high-need schools to deliver culturally relevant curricula and improve the social learning context.

For the project, FAU’s Department of Counselor Education faculty will provide a customized graduate degree program for prospective school counselors and reduce barriers to degree completion, to improve the districts’ capacity to serve students in high-need schools. The 60-credit degree program includes a comprehensive listing of courses equipping graduates to serve students in elementary and secondary schools.

The WAVES programs will create a pathway of tailored coursework for a cohort of candidates from within their home districts. The program will feature online and blended coursework in a flexible format. Master’s degree candidates can be placed in schools after completing five semesters of coursework.

“Access to a school counselor should be an opportunity available to all students,” said Stephen Silverman, Ed.D., dean of FAU’s College of Education. “Given the national and state shortage of mental health professionals, the WAVES program will help to increase the pipeline of highly trained and diverse, certified school-based mental health providers to serve high-need schools. This influx of skilled school counselors has the potential to transform schools by providing students with the support they want and need.”

More than 2.8 million children from pre-K to grade 12 attend one of Florida’s 67 school districts.

As of 2019, each school district in Florida is required to provide at least five hours of mental and emotional health education to students in grades six to 12. This mandate also requires highly trained mental health service professionals to implement the instruction at each school site, translating to a need for an increase in specialized staff.

Co-PIs of the WAVES program are Hannah Bowers, Ph.D., associate professor; Melissa Mariani, Ph.D., associate professor; and Paul Peluso, Ph.D., senior associate dean, all in the Department of Counselor Education within FAU’s College of Education. 


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