University of Oklahoma researchers are developing a “Networked Community of Practice” in collaboration with dozens of education-focused organizations to train 64 school-based behavior analysts, counselors and social workers. The project is designed to address state-identified shortages of highly qualified mental health personnel in rural schools to fill gaps in school-based counseling, family support, academic support and connection to community resources.
The lead researcher for the project is Brittany L. Hott, Ph.D., BCBA-D, an associate professor of special education and associate director of OU’s Institute for Society and Community and Society Transformation. She said by increasing the number of homegrown educators, they are hoping to see decreases in suspensions and expulsions as well as other disciplinary actions while seeing increases in academic outcomes, specifically improvements in reading and mathematics performance.
“According to a recent report from the Rural School and Community Trust, Oklahoma’s rural schools have the fourth-highest educational need in our country. We are hoping this project will make a difference in not only the mental health of children and teachers but also their academic progress,” Hott said.
“Project Rural Innovation for Mental health Enhancement,” or PRIME, is a collaboration between high-need rural schools, OU, the Oklahoma Association for Behavior Analysts, the Oklahoma City chapter of the National Association for Social Workers, the American Council on Rural Special Education, Oklahoma Parent Resource Center and a network of more than 30 nonprofit organizations. The project is funded by a $5.6 million grant from the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, to be distributed over five years.
The districts included in the program have at least 20% poverty rates and meet the federal census criteria for rural schools, which includes most districts in Oklahoma.
“Oklahoma has some of the most diverse rural schools in the entire country,” Hott said. “We're prioritizing high-poverty, high-need school districts that may not have a counselor, behavior analyst or social worker. We are going to grow our own. We are going to recruit from the rural districts that we are serving, and we are going to capitalize and leverage the unique strengths of our rural schools.”
The first cohort of participating students to receive the behavior analyst and counselor training will start in fall 2023. The first cohort of social workers began this semester. The grant will also support stipends for program participants to reduce barriers to education.
“Students are going to have funding for professional organization memberships, for travel to conferences around the state and outside of the state. They will receive their tuition and fees paid for the semesters that they’re involved in the project, and at least a $2,000 stipend per semester to cover educational expenses,” Hott said. “We’re hoping this removes barriers such as childcare, parking passes, textbooks or any of the needs that make it difficult for rural educators to further their training.”
The researchers hope that this initial five-year project supports scaled growth for statewide and long-term support for educators and mental health resources for Oklahoma schools.
“We want to create a win-win where we are serving community needs and contributing to a larger body of research,” Hott said. “Recent comprehensive literature reviews indicate much of our work in special education and in applied behavioral analysis fails to include rural districts. We will test a networked community of rural practice that leverages the expertise of our faculty, professional organizations and rural communities to really get in and do the hard work needed to train professionals to provide mental health services to kids who have high levels of need.”