School Counselor Corps adds more than 300 counselors, mental health professionals to Oklahoma public schools

OKLAHOMA CITY (Sept. 21, 2022) – More than 300 school counselors and mental health professionals have been added to Oklahoma public schools through the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s (OSDE) School Counselor Corps. The corps, launched in 2021 by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, is a three-year, $35 million initiative supported by COVID stabilization funding through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund.

Schools in 176 Oklahoma school districts have added 201 counselors, 47 licensed mental health professionals, 22 licensed clinical social workers and three recreational therapists. Schools also have filled 50 mental health positions through contracted services.

Hofmeister said the School Counselor Corps is bringing much-needed services to schools, some of which have not had a single school counselor in the past.

“This is a crucial investment for our students,” Hofmeister said. “School counselors and mental health professionals play a transformative role in helping students work through adversity, achieve success in the classroom and prepare for life after high school.”

Jenna Jones, executive director of comprehensive school counseling for the OSDE, said some school districts have added new, more creative programs to help their students. Moore, Mustang and Shawnee Public Schools added therapists to their staff to implement recreation-based mental health programs. Several other districts, including Checotah, Bixby, Morris and Grove, added a therapy dog program to serve students.

“The feedback we’re getting from school administrators is that they are seeing an improvement in student wellbeing and a positive impact on student outcomes,” Jones said.

Elizabeth Suddath, OSDE assistant deputy superintendent of student support, added that the School Counselor Corps has helped to establish new community connections.

“We’re seeing school staff partner with community mental health providers and build better connections within their own schools,” she said. “School administrators are looking at wellbeing in a more comprehensive way.”

Bixby Schools added a district counseling services coordinator who has been providing overarching support for counselors, educators and students from PreK through 12th grade. Educators have completed training in trauma-informed practices and Conscious Discipline, an evidence-based self-regulation program. Students have participated in leadership groups, focused on their character strengths and taken part in a Be Well program. The district also partnered with Tristesse Grief Center in Tulsa to provide grief groups for students in seven of its schools.

Bixby District Counseling Services Coordinator Allison Morris said she has seen a new level of awareness among students and families about what resources are available to them.

“Our teachers have seen more connection among their students and an increased sense of belonging,” she added.

Tishomingo Schools Superintendent Bobby Waitman said the School Counselor Corps enabled his district to employ a counselor who is fully dedicated to the many elementary students who have suffered trauma, food insecurities and a lack of support in the home.

“The grant has provided these children with a champion who not only works with the students, but is able to bring the family into structuring an environment for whole student success,” he said.

Tishomingo Schools also added a college and career readiness coordinator to serve secondary students. Since adding the coordinator, Tishomingo has been able to expand its College and Career Ready Program to provide internships with business and industry partners for more than 40 students.

During the 2021-22 school year, the OSDE hosted more than 250 listening sessions with counselors and professionals in participating schools. During the sessions, participants discussed their goals and challenges. Topics discussed include trauma-informed best practices, crisis response and intervention, family and community engagement, multi-tiered systems of support and more. Additional training and listening sessions will take place this school year.

Participating districts applied for grant funding, which covers approximately 50 percent of the cost of the salary and benefits of the new positions. The existing grant will fund positions through the 2023-24 school year.

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