California Thursday announced plans to add 10,000 counselors to its public schools over the next few years, in a move that would double the number of school counselors at a time when mental health is considered fragile among the nation's youth.
"We've always known that even before the pandemic, we've had a workforce shortage," said Tony Thurmond, California Superintendent of Public Instruction, in announcing the plan. "We haven't always had the people to help shoulder the load that we need to address the various mental health needs of our students."
California had 10,602 counselors in the 2020-21 school year, according to the American School Counselor Association.
To help find the counselors, the state will provide up to $20,000 scholarships for graduate students who are pursuing degrees to become mental health clinicians and will spend two years working in schools. Thurmond said he hopes the initiative will encourage grow-your-own programs and attract more prospective school counselors.
"This is going to be a game-changer for our ability to staff up in California," Thurmond said. The state's scholarship applications will open in the next few weeks, he said.
However, colleges and universities in the state will likely be unable to accommodate 10,000 new students right off the bat, Thurmond said.
Nationally, 11,000 students are graduating each year with a master's degree in school counseling, according to ASCA, which collects data from the U.S. Department of Education. California plans to recruit just 1,000 less than that number over the next few years.
The state Department of Education is working with colleges to determine how to open new slots and ensure program capacity and internship opportunities for prospective counselors.
The DOE is also collaborating on the effort with the governor's office, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the California Student Aid Commission and other community-based organizations.
States get creative to fill gaps
California's ambitious plan is part of a larger trend nationwide to invest in school mental health services amid ongoing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and declining student mental health.
In the past week, the Biden administration announced two new grant programs to expand, recruit and retain school counselors. The Education Department will also be distributing nearly $300 million allocated to expand mental health services in schools under the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and the fiscal year 2022 budget.
With historic levels of federal relief funds and new state investments in mental health initiatives, dollars are not necessarily the issue — it's the lack of available candidates.
"For the first time ever in the school counseling profession, we're experiencing a shortage of qualified personnel to fill existing and available positions," said Jill Cook, ASCA executive director.
Cook pointed to additional initiatives in Oklahoma and Colorado meant to help solve this problem. Both states are providing emergency certification for candidates who get training from ASCA until they complete additional certification requirements. In Colorado, emergency certified counselors work toward their master's degree and complete paid internships in schools.
Adding counselors not only creates more access for students needing services, but also lightens the caseload for existing mental health staff.
"We have got to find some creative ways to make sure people have the skills and the knowledge to do this job effectively," said Cook. "But we may need to start looking at how we do that differently."