Phoenix-Talent School District is one of four school districts in the state that can hire more mental health providers as part of a $20 million package of competitive grants secured by US Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.
The senators announced in a news release Friday that Phoenix-Talent schools will get $2,649,732. The other districts to receive funds are Douglas Education Services District ($6.8 million), School District 1J Multnomah County ($5.5 million) and Corbett School District 39 ($4.9 million).
“Mental health care is essential health care, especially for school-aged kids, which is why I introduced the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act to put more providers in schools,” Merkley said in a prepared statement. “I’m grateful that, in the spirit of that legislation, Douglas, Jackson and Multnomah counties are receiving this critical federal investment to help support students. Our children’s success in the classroom is more than just test scores.”
Brent Barry, superintendent of Phoenix-Talent School District, issued a prepared statement saying the need for mental health support for students is “tremendous” given the 2020 Almeda Fire and COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are very excited to get to work and eternally grateful for this opportunity to help our kids and families,” Barry said.
In an interview Friday, Kelly Soter, director of equity and community care for Phoenix-Talent School District, shed more light on how the $2.6 million will be used over five years, the time frame mandated by Congress.
“It’s really hard to accomplish things in a shorter time frame like a three-year grant,” Soter said.
Because Phoenix-Talent doesn’t normally get federal grants this big, Soter noted, part of the funds would be used for an office support specialist who would help manage the grant.
Immediately, the district is working to fulfill parts of the grants’ objectives.
This includes retrofitting Phoenix High School to provide for a La Clinica health service center, adding onto the work that the nonprofit already does to provide health care to youth in the Rogue Valley.
An opening for a fourth community care specialist is being advertised, Soter said. The additional position would add to the three others: Rosario Medina at Talent Elementary, Katie McCormick at Orchard Hill Elementary and Laura Millette at Phoenix Elementary.
The fourth specialist could be someone trained through a new “career pathways” program in partnership with La Clinica.
“Finding mental health providers is a challenge everywhere, particularly in our region,” Soter said. “They’re not just going to materialize out of nowhere because we have more money to hire new folks. We have to have a mechanism (for that).”
The pathways programs are expected to add up to 10 people who are qualified to serve as mental health associates.
The grant funds also will be used to pilot during the current school year a new Portland State University-led “brief screener” to identify youth who are struggling. That will be introduced as a pilot program, but PSU will also help the district place interns in its schools.
Next school year, a school counselor will be added to Talent Middle School, which does not currently have a counselor, Soter said.
As well, the number of districtwide therapists will increase from four to 11 over the next five years, according to Soter.
Soter stressed why a federal grant like the one secured by Oregon’s senators is important for Phoenix-Talent. “We have youth in every school that are struggling, and they’re struggling silently or out loud” she said.
Soter believes a small district like Phoenix-Talent will quickly be able to see the benefits of the grant.
Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.