TRAVERSE CITY — Educators in Northern Michigan hope a new bill circulating in the state legislature will encourage more mental health professionals to seek careers in schools, contributing to a critical shortage that has drawn in recent years across the state.
On April 14, State Representative Bronna Kahle, R-Adrian, and State Senator Curt VanderWall, R-Ludington, introduced identical bills in the State House and Senate intended to establish a system to encourage social workers, counselors and psychologists to work in schools.
If passed, the legislation would establish the Student Mental Health Apprenticeship Program for Retention and Training (SMART), which would provide tuition assistance to people seeking certifications in mental health professions both that they commit to remaining in the districts they serve after being certified. and complete master’s level education requirements.
The SMART program would be managed and funded by the Michigan Department of Education. Tuition assistance would be distributed as a stipend for the recipient’s work in an internship with a public school. Beneficiaries would be paid $25 an hour for up to 20 hours a week over a 30-week period, or a lump sum equal to $15,000 after the 30-week internship, depending on the text of the bill.
With a student-to-school counselor ratio of 671 to 1, Michigan ranks second-to-last among U.S. states and territories for having counselors available to students, according to a 2019-20 report from the American School Counselor Association. most recent figures available. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250:1.
“Now more than ever, this legislation is needed to help encourage those who are about to complete their certifications and master’s level requirements to be able to provide support for these children in schools,” Kahle said. “I guess, in a nutshell, this bill will create that pipeline that we desperately need from our universities in Michigan.”
Today, such solutions seem all the more critical as the pool of candidates for mental health support positions in schools has thinned with growing need during the pandemic. Sheri Conner, school social worker with Northwest Education Services (North Ed) and regional president of the Michigan Association of School Social Workers, said her caseload has increased by about 15-20% this year, even with additional staff. in his office.
The SMART plan will be “really helpful” when it comes to encouraging more social workers to pursue careers in schools, particularly because with more course requirements and certifications it can be more expensive to become a school social worker, Conner said.
In addition to encouraging more people to work in schools, Conner said she also hopes more certified people will work in rural areas and places like the Traverse City area, where there are no major university nearby to attract recent graduates from .
“If a student at Traverse City High School says, ‘I’m going to go to U of M and I’m going to graduate,’ and then they back off, that’s great,” Conner said. “But that doesn’t happen often.”
Casey Petz, Superintendent of Suttons Bay Schools, said it’s relieving to see state legislators paying attention to this issue and drafting bills that get to the root of the problem, especially now that he sees more students seeking mental health supports and more difficulty hiring and retaining social workers, psychologists and school counsellors.
What was once a two- to four-week process has turned into a months-long ordeal waiting for qualified candidates to apply for job postings, Petz said. The SMART plan is part of a comprehensive overall solution that must be able to sustainably and robustly fund and support these positions, he said.
Leland Public School superintendent Stephanie Long said her district has been “incredibly lucky” to receive COVID funding and find qualified candidates to fill positions at their school. Leland recently hired a behavioral interventionist and a school psychologist to act as the district’s social worker and officials will soon hire another guidance counselor to work alongside the only counselor in the school of 400 students.
But Long is aware that her district is an exception and that many of these positions are funded by temporary grants.
The SMART plan is a great first step in encouraging people to enter the profession, but another key aspect of tackling the shortage of counsellors, social workers and psychologists in schools is ensuring that these positions are well paid and with consistent and sustainable funding, Long said.
Carol Greilick, assistant superintendent of special education at North Ed, said the SMART plan is “a big step” to encourage more young people – some who may be reluctant to go into debt or see working in schools as daunting – to occupy these posts in the schools.
“I think it’s the incredible need that many students face that makes the field of education truly overwhelming,” Greilick said. “And at the same time, really rewarding.”
Along with tuition assistance, Conner said limits on the number of cases school social workers can take on and more guidelines setting consistent expectations across school districts would also help draw people into the profession.
Despite the current issues, Conner said she was hopeful for the future. Recent emphasis on this issue in legislation is encouraging. If what has been proposed passes, she thinks there will be a change.
“I think we’re going to start to see a change, but part of that is seeing that we have to help everyone around us,” Conner said. “There’s a lot of burnout, a lot of teachers are burnt out, administrators are burnt out. So trying to help everyone can be a bit daunting. But it’s worth it.”