Bridging the Gap in School-Based Mental Healthcare

August 22, 2023

Across the Nation, many schools and districts experience a gap between the mental health needs of their student body and the services they are capable of providing. From a shortage of trained professionals to lack of funds, numerous obstacles stretch districts as they seek to provide the best services for the children they serve. Researchers in Baylor’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work are doing their part to address that challenge.

Arroyo and Zane Nelson
Arroyo and Zane Nelson

A $2.5 million Department of Education (DOE) grant allows Baylor to further develop longstanding partnerships with area schools through a comprehensive program to enhance school-based mental health services in Waco. The DOE grant support will fund Partnering for Heart of Texas (H.O.T.) Mental Health, with projects such as internship positions, training and certificate program development, Spanish-language training and more.

Carrie Arroyo, senior lecturer of social work at Baylor, serves as the project’s principal investigator. She is joined on the grant by Mary Zane Nelson, co-principal investigator and project director, and Stephanie Boddie, Ph.D., project evaluator and associate professor of church and community ministries.

“It’s such a privilege to work with local school districts and to help them meet the responsibility of protecting the kids who walk through their doors,” Arroyo said. “We’re grateful for the impact of this grant, which will provide stable funding to build on these relationships and get more local mental health providers trained and working in our schools.”

Partnering for Heart of Texas (H.O.T.) Mental Health is one of numerous projects across the nation funded through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to bridge gaps in training, funding and talent pool development.

“As we partner with local schools, we see the need for mental health services, and we’re grateful for the openness and advocacy on the part of our local partners to create these mental health positions,” Nelson said. “The data show, and we see, just how many children are having mental health struggles. To keep a child from potentially falling through the cracks, it’s helpful to have specialists who can serve in the school and get children the care they need.”

Baylor researchers and students have long partnered with Waco Independent School District (Waco ISD) and Transformation Waco, the nonprofit, in-district charter partnership managing and operating five Waco ISD schools. Through the DOE grant, social work students will work at Waco High School, G.W. Carver Middle School and Alta Vista Elementary School. Unique to the grant, which specifically funds students pursuing their Master of Social Work degree, is a distinct focus to create opportunities for students from the Greater Waco area to train and eventually serve in schools in their home community.

“We know that our students have faced trauma in their lives, and the pandemic only exacerbated that,” Joshua Wucher, chief communications officer for Transformation Waco, said. “We’ve had a number of social mental health services available to our students, and our partnership with Baylor’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work has been very valuable to provide wraparound services for our students. We’re thrilled about the new grant and the support it will provide to our students.”

Over a five-year period, the grant will fund an escalating number of in-school positions, starting with six students the first year and growing to 10 by the third year of the grant. Additional provisions from the grant include Spanish-language training to prepare practitioners to capably and ethically serve Spanish-speaking students, and the development of a clinical school social work certificate that would demonstrate a graduate’s experience in school-based mental healthcare. Further stipends will support students juggling school, work and family needs as they pursue their degree, with a focus on student recruitment from the Waco area.

“Mental health as a field of practice takes a lot of training. Many people don’t realize what all social workers can do until an event in their lives brings them into contact with one,” Arroyo said. “The more we can partner with our schools and create earlier exposure to mental health services — to also help students envision that as a career path and start working toward it — it’s exciting to think about that impact and what it would mean to have more homegrown practitioners here in Waco.”