GAINESVILLE, Florida  – Public schools can be an important setting for identifying students’ mental health needs. A recently funded project will work to expand school-based mental health (SBMH) services and provider retention in Alachua County. 

Gator Connect, a $4.8 million grant across the UF School Psychology, School Counseling and Mental Health Counseling programs, will provide enhanced training and assistantship funding to a total of 15 graduate student trainees — five from each program. 

The project received its funding from the U.S. Department of Education and is in collaboration with Alachua County Public Schools. It will finance professional seminars, training-related expenses, necessary school supplies and mentorship, among other things. In addition, Gator Connect provides stipends for trainee internships, which typically offer little to no pay in Alachua and surrounding communities. 

After completing their internship, graduating and earning credentialing, program trainees must complete a year-and-a-half-long service obligation to ACPS equivalent to their received funding. 

The rise in mental health needs among children and youth has accelerated during the pandemic, stretching a very limited workforce of mental health professionals even further,” said Joni Splett, principal investigator and associate professor of school psychology. 

The trainees will be placed throughout five high-need ACPS locations: three elementary and two middle schools. 

During the five-year project, researchers from the University of Florida College of Education and their colleagues at Alachua County Public Schools will co-supervise the trainees. Other UF College of Education investigators include Lee Purvis, Sondra Smith-Adcock, Hannah Bayne, Sara Jean-Phillippe, Mercedes Machado, Melanie Sonsteng-Person, Erica McCray, Lori Dassa and Ayanna Troutman.

“The team at UF is collaborating very closely with ACPS to make the grant activities impactful to the school communities who need the most assistance and support to help their students and families,” said Smith-Adcock, associate professor of counselor education. 

Anntwanique Edwards, Donald Reed, Toni Griffin and Veita Jackson-Carter are Alachua County Public Schools’ co-investigators. 

By fostering community and sense of pride, Gator Connect hopes to grow the number of state-credentialed graduates able to fill SBMH positions in Alachua County, which needs more providers. 

Less vacancies in ACPS will allow local field supervision to increase. Thus, UF SBMH-related programs could continue to admit trainees even after funding ends. 

“Gator Connect is a great opportunity for Alachua County Public Schools to partner with the University of Florida to reimagine the roles of school psychologists, school counselors and school-based social workers,” said Griffin, the district’s supervisor of student services. “Through this partnership, ACPS will have additional opportunities to recruit and retain professionals who are critical to providing school-based mental health services.”

Working to expand the profession, the team plans to expand recruitment efforts with intent to build greater capacity and improve service delivery in a variety of settings. Growing the number of SBMH professionals who reflect an area’s population can have long-term positive effects and reduce the potential for deeper and more costly interventions in the future.

“The well-being of our youth and families in Alachua County should be a shared priority, and through Gator Connect, we can collaborate within our community to address it,” Splett said.

Joni Splett