Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District receives $3 million for mental wellness support programs along with Tulare County Office of Education
CUTLER-OROSI – Two local school districts recently received federal grants to keep up their efforts in addressing student mental health and wellness.
In February, the U.S. Department of Education allocated over $188 million to support school programs directed towards students’ wellness in mental health. For its own programs, Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District (COJUSD) received over $2.9 million in grant funding to continue its mental health support systems and take them even further.
“The ultimate goal is to prepare our students to be healthy adults,” COJUSD director of special services Antonio Quintanilla said. “It’s not just academics anymore. It’s also social skills, emotional skills, behavioral skills.”
Having been a school psychologist for 17 years, and now director of special services for five, Quintanilla said he has seen increased rates of anxiety, depression and substance abuse amongst students first-hand. He said schools need more mental health support to meet the needs of students early on and prevent serious side effects to their growth and development, especially in impoverished communities.
“We’ve received a [positive behavior interventions and supports] grant before, several years ago, so we learned the benefit of having increased mental health professionals [at schools],” Quintanilla said.
The programs that qualified the school district for the grant are coping and support training (CAST), screening brief intervention and referral to treatment (SBIRT) and youth mental health first aid (YMHFA). Quintanilla said the district has hired psychologists, social workers and educational social workers to run the programs and, with this grant, it can both sustain current staff and add more to expand on and improve their mental health services.
“Getting these grants really is a result of teamwork,” Quintanilla said. “And the result of putting together a very good plan that you can implement.”
Through CAST, students demonstrating risk factors, like self harm or other mental crises, are provided with support through counseling groups. SBIRT addresses any suspected drug use amongst students and helps lead them away from that path; it also helps get them any treatment they may need. Through YMHFA, staff is provided and trained to interact with adolescents that have mental health needs and crises and assist them in whatever way they can.
The $2.9 million grant supporting these programs is part of a five-year allocation from the federal Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, meaning the school district will receive the funding annually until 2027. The 2022 Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is meant to address student safety by making changes to mental health systems, school safety programs and gun safety laws.
Another local school facility that received a $2.9 million grant was the Tulare County Office of Education (TCOE). The office received the allocation for its PRIMHE – preparing rural inclusive mental health educators – project, a one-year internship program that recruits and trains social workers. It is offered through TCOE’s California Center on Teaching Careers.
According to Marvin Lopez, the executive director for the center, the grant will help TCOE fund the program with financial incentives for PRIMHE’s future counselors, therapists and social workers. He said the goal of the program is to help address a shortage of school site mental health professionals in Tulare County.
“A well-staffed school with high-quality teachers and robust staff of mental health professionals is the goal we’re working towards to ensure every California student has a strong educational experience where their needs are met,” Lopez said.
Through PRIMHE, the internship’s candidates will spend 10 months earning clinical experience through Tulare County school sites with supervision from experienced supervisors at TCOE. Lopez also said an intern will receive a fixed sum of $20,000 for their year with the program and get a $5,000 bonus for the first three years of employment at a Tulare County school. He said the program will help school districts by offsetting the costs of the social worker for the first three years but the hope is that the school district utilizing the worker can afford to hire the worker full time after that.
“We’re going to work with those districts in developing a sustainability plan so that by year four they can afford to have that social worker at their campus and pay it out of their general funds,” Lopez said.
These financial incentives are new to the program and address an issue of not always being able to retain mental health professionals at Tulare County school sites, according to Lopez. Before it was PRIMHE, the pilot of the program was the rural access to mental health professionals (RAMHP) project, which did not have the financial compensation that PRIMHE does now.
RAMHP was started in 2019 and also received a five-year allocation from the U.S. Department of Education to get it started. Since not being able to retain employees was the biggest issue observed in the project, Lopez said TCOE applied for the allocation for 2023 with the newer, scaled up PRIMHE version.