Building Rural Schools’ Mental Health Professional Pipeline

by Rebekah Goode
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Rural landscape at dawn with morning mist floating over a field.

There’s a cloud of increased anxiety and other mental health issues looming over childhood. That cloud grew with the pandemic and is continuing to loom because of a critical national shortage of mental health professionals in schools.

But there is a bright spot on the horizon for some school districts in rural Tennessee and rural Appalachia. Two grants awarded to programs within the college aim to alleviate the shortage and help drive away this cloud over our kids. Both programs serve as a pipeline to increase the flow and retention of highly trained mental health professionals into these areas.

Project RAISE

A five-year, $12 million US Department of Education grant was awarded in January 2023 to UT’s Center for Literacy, Education, and Employment through the Tennessee Department of Education. It focuses funds on enticing and paying graduate-level school psychology, school social work, and school counselor interns to work in rural schools across the state. Research leading into the project, called Rural Access to Interventions in School Environments (RAISE), painted a clear picture of the dire situation.

“Almost 44.6 percent of our rural school districts across the state of Tennessee didn’t have a full-time mental health provider, which is pretty critical,” says April Ebbinger, director of psychological and behavioral supports for the Tennessee Department of Education, state principal investigator, and Project RAISE director. “We needed to find ways to remove barriers to get these providers out to the rural districts.”

One big barrier is that mental health internships that are required to graduate often offer little or no pay. Project RAISE breaks that barrier with stipends ranging from $15,000 to $40,000 to students who participate in the training and internship program.

“CLEE pays those stipends, and that’s where the bulk of the funds are going. Funds also go toward professional development, in-person training, and as another incentive, interns are given memberships within our state organizations and registration fees for state organization conferences, which they might not normally have the funds to do,” says Lisa Crawford, CLEE associate director and Project RAISE’s principal investigator at UT.

The Tennessee project partners include UT, Middle Tennessee State University, the University of Memphis, and the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. CLEE manages the program for the entire state at the direction of Ebbinger.

In addition to normal classwork, Project RAISE trainees receive a year of training developed by content experts from the project’s university partners. When the students are on the job in a rural school, an onsite mental health professional supervisor fields day-to-day questions. Ongoing training and professional development opportunities, accessible professors, the content experts, and CLEE staff provide additional support.

Project RAISE has placed 23 interns in rural Tennessee schools with more students in the training pipeline.

“Ninety of Tennessee’s 95 counties are considered rural. About 60 school districts are currently participating. The project will ultimately take in 70 interns per year,” says Ebbinger.

In return for training and financial support, newly minted graduates will work for two years in a high-need school in Tennessee. The hope is that the graduate eventually settles in a rural Tennessee school district.

“Our goal is to give them the financial and professional support they need to keep them in these communities where they see families at church and at the grocery store. We start to move the marker with mental health outcomes when these providers build relationships not only with their clientele, the students, but also with the families and the communities at large,” says Ebbinger.

The Rural Appalachian Mental Health Partnership Targets High-Need Schools

The US Department of Education invited institutions of higher education to apply for similar funding through a separate grant. UT’s Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling did just that—with a focus on high-need, rural Appalachian schools.

The Rural Appalachian Mental Health Partnership program was awarded a $4 million grant to recruit and train six school counseling/dual track RAMHP Scholars and six school psychology RAMHP Scholars each year of the five-year grant, for a total of 60 students. RAMHP places the Scholars, who are trained in serving the mental health needs of rural students, in its Cocke County, Grainger County, Greene County, and Newport City partner schools. Many school districts rely on contracted mental health professionals to fill the need.

“There are districts that email me every year wanting to hire a school psychologist, and they just have difficulty finding one and hiring one,” says Merilee McCurdy, professor and principal investigator for RAMHP.

The RAMHP program provides $10,000 scholarships in the first year and $20,000 in the second year along with travel and expense stipends. Following graduation, the RAMHP scholars serve two years in a school district identified by the program as high-need, low income, having a high student-to-counselor/student-to-school psychologist ratio, or significant student mental health needs.

For some students, working in rural Appalachia is a calling they hadn’t expected. The RAMHP training has led school counseling graduate student Ana Sustaita to see that she and other counselors can make a huge contribution to rural Appalachian schools—one student at a time.

“We are the trusted adult that a kid needs. They can talk to me, and I can advocate for them,” says Sustaita.

With Project RAISE and RAMHP recruiting and training students, soon rural Tennessee and rural Appalachian school districts looking to hire mental health professionals will have highly trained, committed and community-minded candidates in the pipeline ready and eager to serve.

Learn more about applying: ProjectRaiseTN.comRAMHP

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