BY HEATHER NOEL
As Denton County’s population continues to grow at a record rate, it will only widen critical needs in school-based mental health care, but faculty in UNT’s College of Education are leading efforts to close the gap.
Matthew Lemberger-Truelove, Peggy Ceballos and Dan Li in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education are looking to make systemic change with support from a $3.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education that was authorized by Sen. John Cornyn’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.
“We know that counseling can have a profound impact in schools helping students to regulate their emotions, improve their attention and increase their feelings of connectedness, which all can contribute to better academic achievement,” says Lemberger-Truelove. “That’s why it’s important we act now to reduce the student to counselor ratios in our region, which currently stand above the 250 to 1 recommendation by the American School Counselor Association.”
Over the next five years, the UNT researchers will focus on expanding mental health care and training in local Title I schools in Denton and Lewisville ISDs. The goal is to not only increase the number of mental health providers but also ensure these incoming professionals are prepared to respond to the evolving needs within growing schools. With very few clinical-based counseling trials performed in schools, their work also will add much-needed research on school-based counseling practices.
“With the changing demographics of North Texas, we have a focus on better aligning our school-based mental health providers with the composition of the student populations,” says Lemberger-Truelove, who specializes in culturally responsive interventions in school environments. “We also need to better understand what counseling approaches specifically work best in a school setting and studying practices in these schools as part of this grant will help us in that.”
This fall, UNT will welcome the first of three cohorts of 10 school counseling graduate students to be trained through a curriculum that’s specifically geared toward an evidence-based approach to working in school environments. Funding from the grant will partially pay for the students’ tuition. Additionally, four other students will be selected from UNT’s mental health counseling master’s program each year to engage in specific internship placements in Denton County schools. In total, 50 graduate students will be impacted by the grant over the next five years.
“This could potentially have systemic effects on the way mental health services are looked at in these districts, which we can then leverage as evidence for policy change,” Lemberger-Truelove says.