After years of advocating for more school counselors in districts across the state, Oklahoma State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has found the funding to establish a School Counselor Corps to provide additional mental health resources for Oklahoma students.
The state Department of Education will use $35 million in pandemic federal relief dollars to help districts hire more school counselors, licensed school-based mental health professionals, social workers and recreational therapists.
“For many years, Oklahoma children have suffered the highest rates of trauma in the nation, and over the past 15 months they have endured additional trauma from the pandemic,” Hofmeister said. “If we are to ensure our students are on track for academic success, we must first take action to wrap supports around the whole child.”
Oklahoma’s current student-to-school counselor ratio is 411-to-1, well above the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of 250-to-1.
With funding through the American Rescue Plan, the initiative is part of the state Department of Education’s recovery plan aimed at addressing students’ social-emotional need through the pandemic and beyond.
“Oklahoma schools have long needed more school counselors and that need is more urgent than ever in the wake of this pandemic,” Hofmeister said. “We have made progress in reducing the student-to-school counselor ratio over the past few years, but this initiative marks a dramatic improvement.”
Adding school-based mental health professionals trained in evidence-based practices is a pillar of any holistic approach to student success, said Carrie Slatton-Hodges, Oklahoma’s Commissioner for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
“Far too many of Oklahoma’s children are living childhoods that expose them to traumatic experiences. This fact, coupled with the trauma we all experienced due to last year’s disruptions, underscores how critical it is to better integrate our systems so that fewer children develop mental health problems,” she said.
The statewide program will accept applications from public school district requesting funds for around half of the cost of the salary and benefits of qualified positions. Districts may also contract out for eligible positions or services.
The grant will fund the positions through the 2023-24 school year.
The department said districts will be required to describe how the new professional services will support the academic, social and emotional needs of students along with their current ratio of students-to-school counselors or mental health professionals.
Districts must also indicate the percentage of students who are members of federally protected student groups, such as low-income students, students with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, migrant students and students in foster care.
Research shows members of these student groups have been most adversely impacted by the pandemic.
“We are making our single largest investment of COVID emergency relief funding in the Counselor Corps because we know its impact will benefit students in every corner of our state,” Hofmeister said.
For more information about OSDE’s recovery plan, Ready Together Oklahoma, visit readytogether.sde.ok.gov.