UW–Madison to Lead New National Center Addressing Lack of School Mental Health Providers
Proposal from education researchers will receive $10.4 million in federal funding over 4 years
September 29, 2023 | By Karen Rivedal, WCER Communications
A shortage of mental health providers for students in K–12 schools has led to the creation of a new national center at WCER.
UW–Madison education researchers have been awarded a 4-year, $10.4 million federal contract to launch and operate a national center to expand and improve the country’s school-based mental health workforce of school psychologists, social workers, and other practitioners.
The winning proposal from faculty members Stephen Kilgus, Katie Eklund, and Andy Garbacz, co-directors of the School Mental Health Collaborative (SMHC) in the university’s nationally ranked Department of Educational Psychology, establishes a Mental Health Evaluation, Training, Research, and Innovation Center for Schools (METRICS). The proposal was issued in response to a U.S. Department of Education (DoE) call for applications in May to create a “Mental Health Personnel Technical Assistance Center” (MHP TA Center).
The new center will help schools better serve students—who are increasingly reporting mental health concerns—by providing tools to strengthen the pipeline and training of mental health professionals and increase access to critical mental health services in high-need schools.
METRICS is also a powerful new example of the Wisconsin Idea, which holds that the benefits of the university should reach beyond the classroom to enhance people’s lives and help solve urgent and complex problems throughout the state, nation, and world.
“METRICS is aligned with the mission of SMHC and UW–Madison,” Kilgus says. “This new center will allow us to connect with schools, districts, and universities across the nation, building the capacity needed to promote youth mental health. Our goal is to provide the knowledge and resources needed to expand and diversify the school mental health workforce.”
The new center will begin operations Oct. 1 in partnership with collaborators across three other institutions known for school mental health expertise that will contribute talent and resources.
- University of South Florida (Evan Dart, Shannon Suldo, Nate von der Embse)
- University of Iowa (Allison Bruhn, Gerta Bardhoshi)
- University of California Santa Barbara (Erin Dowdy, Mike Furlong, Jon Goodwin, Arlene Ortiz)
Federal officials pledged that METRICS will “meaningfully change lives, by building a mental health infrastructure in schools and communities across the country,” according to a DoE news release publicly announcing the selection on Sept. 22.
"The youth mental health crisis is among the top concerns raised to me by students, parents, families, educators, and school leaders across America," said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. "This new nationwide technical assistance center, run by the University of Wisconsin System (at UW–Madison) is an exciting step forward that will help equip education leaders with the most effective strategies for integrating mental health services in their schools."
Creation of the center was also framed as a major step in meeting President Joe Biden’s goal to double the number of mental health professionals supporting students' mental health needs, as well as a key priority of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which is slated to invest over $1 billion in school-based mental health programs over five years.
Serving schools and students
METRICS will strengthen school mental health services by supporting close to 300 grants awarded by DoE over the past two years directly to state education agencies, school districts, and universities for the same purpose.
From left, Katie Eklund, Stephen Kilgus, and Andy Garbacz lead the School Mental Health Collaborative.
Those funded proposals to increase the number and diversity of high-quality, trained mental health services providers—especially in high-need school districts where staff shortages are most acute — include one in Madison for $6 million led by Eklund, in collaboration with Garbacz and Kilgus. This grant, received in April in a partnership with the Madison Metropolitan School District, will expand culturally responsive mental health services in the district by training 24 new school psychology graduate students from diverse backgrounds over the next 5 years who upon graduation will work for 3 years in a high-needs school.
In total, the nearly 300 grants to be supported by METRICS represent a federal investment of more than $188 million in funded proposals across the country, even as 70 percent of public schools are reporting an increase in students seeking mental health services and 29 percent of schools are seeing an increase in staff asking for mental health help.
“Mental health concerns among children and youth are rising, and we don’t have enough mental health professionals to address this critical need for services in schools,” says Kilgus, who also is a researcher based at the School of Education’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research, where METRICS will be housed.
Under METRICS, the center team will support DoE grant recipients by sharing resources and professional learning through methods such as webinars, toolkits, instructional videos, and presentations. A center website also will be created, with access to online learning communities and a section that grantees will use to enter required performance data for their grants over time to allow monitoring by the center team.
“Our goal is to help these grants be successful,” Kilgus notes. “We’re supporting grantees, but we’re also supporting a broader mission from the federal government focused on achieving expansion and diversification of the mental health workforce.”
The new METRICS center will do five main things.
- Partner with education agencies and higher education institutions to ensure a pipeline of school-based mental health services providers from diverse backgrounds or from the communities that they serve.
- Host communities of practice for grantees to share resources and experiences related to specific areas of grant implementation.
- Provide training on data reporting and analyze aggregated grantee data to identify successes, challenges, exemplars, and noteworthy trends.
- Disseminate resources, best practices, and evidence-based tools through the METRICS website and social media.
- Provide webinars and meetings focused on evaluating programs and using evaluation data to continuously improve grant programs.
“This new center will increase trainers’ capacity to recruit and train the mental health professionals who will go on to help support students in K-12 schools,” Kilgus says.
Making the case for the center
The DoE request for center applications in May included multiple program and application requirements, stipulating that successful applicants have experience in providing training programs, information, and support to schools and other educational agencies on all levels, along with “expert knowledge” in:
- the laws and rules around the federal grant programs to be monitored.
- best practices supporting mental health services providers in high-need schools, from credentialing to retention.
- evidence-based approaches to supporting student and staff mental health.
- approaches to supporting, collecting, and analyzing valid and reliable data, conducting data quality reviews, and evaluating programs intended to support student social, emotional, and mental health and well-being.
“Our goal is to partner with grantees in collecting good outcome data,” notes Kilgus, who is executive director of METRICS. “High quality information will allow federal officials to evaluate the return on their investment.”
As part of the case for getting the center grant, Kilgus could point to similar work he’s done with the SMHC, a WCER project co-created in 2019 with Eklund and Garbacz to develop tools and resources to help parents and educators promote the mental health of children and adolescents.
Through SMHC, Kilgus, Eklund, and Garbacz have led statewide trainings, shared resources, and produced helpful tools including the Resilience Education Program (REP), a mental health innovation for young students at risk of internalizing problems. SMHC has provided statewide trainings on REP, most recently in Vermont and Delaware this summer.
“We host resources and provide training and professional development through SMHC,” Kilgus says. “This center grant allows us to continue to do this work but on a larger scale.”
A tool like REP could see broader distribution to DoE grantees through METRICS, as could a universal mental health screening implementation guide developed by SMHC.
“It’s an instruction manual for schools or districts looking to get into screening students for mental health concerns, just like we do for reading, math, and vision,” Kilgus says. “This is a brief, freely available resource describing the steps to take to get ready to do it and then to pull it off. We’ve seen this adopted by a lot of schools, districts, and even states, including Michigan’s Department of Education.”
Key roles under the proposal
SMHC Co-directors Eklund and Garbacz play major roles in METRICS, with Eklund serving as associate director (AD) of coaching and Garbacz being the AD of dissemination.
Eklund is excited about the professional development and coaching offered as part of the new center. “Our coaches will be able to make meaningful connections with training programs across the country to identify innovative recruitment and training of a diverse workforce in the fields of school psychology, social work, and counseling. We are thrilled to have resources and personnel that will contribute to providing high quality mental health services in our K-12 schools.”
Translational science is at the core of the dissemination strategy, Garbacz says. “We are looking forward to collaborating with grantees to identify their priorities for key resources and learning communities. These resources and communities will be co-designed by METRICS staff and school and community partners to address grantee goals for recruiting, retaining, and credentialing school mental health practitioners.”
Other key roles include Erin Dowdy at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) leading much of the work of setting up a tiered structure of support for grantees, and Nate von der Embse at the University of South Florida, the AD of data science, who will build the project website and data repository.
“At UCSB, we are excited to be partnering with our colleagues to collectively work on how to enhance school-based mental health services,” Dowdy says. “We hope to build meaningful connections among grantees to support and learn from one another, as we are all working towards a common goal of supporting the mental health of students in high-need schools.”
Additionally, 13 staff members will be hired under the grant to help run and operate METRICS. These staff will work full-time for the new center.
The new project hires will include web designers, data scientists, a communication specialist, and a project director, Kilgus says. The team will post jobs and interview candidates soon, with that work and other start-up tasks likely to take a few months.
The unknowns ahead are part of the charm.
“I’m really excited to work with new team members who can put 100 percent of their time into this,” says Kilgus, whose proposal for the center was the only one approved. “That team is coming with unique skills that can expand upon what we can even imagine right now about what this project could become.”