CT school districts receive funding to hire mental health specialists – NBC Connecticut

Jennifer Theriault is eager for the school year to begin. Working as an early childhood social worker in Groton, she focuses on the mental health needs of the district’s youngest learners.

“Getting to them early while they are in that young age where they can have so much progress is ideal,” Theriault said. “Rather than focusing on mental health efforts later on in their lifespan.”

Theriault works with more than 200 preschool and kindergarten students in Groton. Her position is relatively new and was created after the district noticed an increased need for mental health support in that age group during the pandemic.

“Because they don’t have the base of skills that older students already worked on before the pandemic shut everything down. They are starting from scratch,” Theriault said.

Superintendent Susan Austin said that their data made it clear that they needed to focus more on preschool, pre-K and kindergarten students.

“Teachers were really concerned about our littles,” Austin said. “When they finally got to school, you could really see a difference – that they needed more support and families needed more support.”

The district created Theriault’s position, but the money that initially funded it ran out this summer.

The school district was just awarded a Connecticut School Mental Health Specialists Grant that will allow Theriault to continue in her role for the next three years.

The state awarded $15 million in funding for 72 school districts across Connecticut. The grant is designed to help districts hire and retain mental health specialists.

“This funding will enable schools to hire dedicated school mental health professionals, ensuring students have the vital support they need. With this investment we are building a safer, nurturing environment where students can excel academically, socially, emotionally and physically,” Charlene Russell-Tucker, the state’s education commissioner, wrote in a press release.

The Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) said that the new grant program prioritizes students’ well-being as a foundational element to student success.

“We want to meet the needs of the students. The goal is to provide resources to districts so they can onboard clinicians,” John Frassinelli, with the CSDE, told NBC Connecticut.

The grant program was competitive, with more than 100 districts that applied. It is being funded with federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

Frassinelli said as part of the application process, districts had to evaluate their data and determine where their greatest needs were.

Groton received $232,200 in grant funding for school years 2024, 2025 and 2026. It will directly fund Theriault’s position as the district’s early childhood social worker.

“We’ve learned that without the focus on mental health we are not going to accomplish anything else,” Theriault said.

Austin said that the early childhood social worker position has made a big difference.

“The impact has been profound,” Austin said.

The district is addressing mental health in other ways as well. Each school building has a social worker and school psychologist. They have also hired more Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) tutors, among other initiatives.

The grant-funded early childhood social worker position is one piece to the puzzle.

“But it is an important piece because it sets the foundation for student’s learning,” said Denise Doolittle, who oversees student support services for the district. “It is an investment in our youngest children.”

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