DC receives grant to recruit, retain mental health professionals amid school vacancies

D.C. has received a $9.7 million grant from the Department of Education that city leaders say will be used to help recruit and retain mental health professionals to work in the city’s schools.

The city applied for and was given the grant as part of the agency’s school-based mental health services program. The funding will be provided to the city over the next five years.

Tia Marie Brumsted, D.C.’s assistant superintendent of health and wellness, said the funding “will allow us to lead recruitment initiatives to generate career pathways from high school through postgraduate job placement, designed for folks to engage with school-based (mental health work) and what school-based (mental health work) looks like in D.C. at any point.”

It will also be used to provide professional development and training opportunities to current employees, as the city works to retain mental health professionals, who are in high demand in schools across the country.

The funding comes as D.C. schools grapple with job vacancies for school psychologists and social workers. As of Jan. 31, DC Public Schools had 29 social worker vacancies and 36 school psychologist openings, according to city data.

A DCPS spokesman said in an email that the city is competing with school systems nationwide to fill the openings but is relying on partnerships with universities to address them.

Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia recently received a similar grant, and last month, Superintendent Michelle Reid said that recruiting and retaining school-based mental health staff members is competitive.

“We are proud of the progress we’ve made, but we know that there is more work to do to meet the needs of our students,” D.C. State Superintendent Christina Grant said in a statement. “We aim to attract providers to school-based practice as they complete graduate training and as providers advance through their careers.”

The grant won’t be used to pay salaries, Brumsted said, because those positions then have to be funded when the grant money is no longer available. D.C., she said, has taken steps toward staffing all public and public charter schools with a behavioral health provider since 2018.

For the first few years, she said, the focus will be on expanding access to training resources. Some of those will provide educators with best practices and support for “talking about depression, anxiety, suicide, bullying prevention, violence prevention,” among other things.

Brumsted said that the period of virtual learning during the height of the pandemic limited students from having access to their support systems. That isolation, combined with mental health issues like amounting anxiety and grief, had “tremendous impacts on our young people’s mental health and their ability to be available for learning.”

Some of the funding will go toward addressing the gap that many mental health professionals, most recent graduates, face in having less experience working in schools or with children, she said.

“We are really leaning into this opportunity to develop our relationship with our local and regional colleges and universities, to ensure that students going through this program are exposed to the type of career of supporting child and adolescents and school building and supporting adult learners,” she said.

In its cadre of first-year providers, Brumsted said, “We will be offering a stipend upon completion that will be funded by this grant program. We’re also exploring other types of incentives for D.C. natives, as well as bilingual providers.”

The initiative will also feature incentives to support recent graduates with license preparation, with the hope that they “pass their license on the first time and then are ready to work full time in our schools,” she said.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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