The nation’s ongoing school counselor shortage means some schools might only have one counselor, while others either have none or must share resources with other schools. It’s an issue in which UCF’s Department of Counselor Education and School Psychology is actively intervening via the Systemic School Treatment and Response Project (known as Project STAR) — and now, it’s Project STAR’s time to shine. The school is located in the College of Community Innovation and Education.

Project STAR is funded by a Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration grant through the U.S. Department of Education. The five-year, $5 million grant is intended to support the training of school-based mental health service providers for employment in schools and local educational agencies.

UCF’s counselor education program has partnered with 13 Florida school districts to accomplish this goal and address the ongoing shortage of mental health counselors in schools, especially those considered high need. According to data from U.S. News & World Report, the districts serve student populations comprised of 40% to 80% racial or ethnic minorities. Additionally, between 24.2% and 53.4% of the students served are considered economically disadvantaged.

With a growing need to mitigate the negative impacts of mental health crises comes an increasing demand for more counselors — and therefore a greater strain on the supply. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor per 250 students; Florida currently has one per 434 students.

“It can be tough to increase the number of school counselors and mental health service providers going into schools when you see burnout and high turnover rates,” says Viki Kelchner, associate professor of counselor education and co-principal investigator of the project. “School counselors are also holding space for the families, and even now more than ever, they’re also holding space for teachers, faculty and staff. The number of people needing them is growing and growing, but the number of providers going in the field is not. Training our students to learn how to connect and partner with schools is so important.”

That’s where programs like Project STAR come to shine. Melissa Zeligman, associate professor of counselor education and principal investigator of the project, credits department chair Oliver Edwards with suggesting the grant as a good fit with the work they are already doing.

“The Department of Education has been prioritizing and committing to addressing mental health with students,” Zeligman says. “We were in a great place to answer that call because we have students who are well-qualified to work with young children. We see the impact that providing counselor training and much-needed mental health services has on our students and on the children we serve. Being in the schools highlights the importance of all entities working together for one common goal of addressing the needs of the whole child and the whole family.”

Project STAR kicked off this fall, and over the span of the next five years, it will address the counselor shortage through a three-pronged approach. The first objective is increasing the number of counseling providers in high-need schools. The project aims to place 220 unduplicated, highly trained counseling and school psychology graduate students in school-based mental health practicums and/or internship experiences. The second involves increasing the number of mental health service providers from diverse backgrounds, and the third aims to provide evidence-based training and inclusive pedagogy in school-based mental health services.

“Students who historically have been underserved have so many barriers to any kind of services in general, so we want to break down those barriers and provide students in these communities with the mental health services that they not only need but also deserve — and free of charge,” Kelchner says. “If we want to change things systemically and help people flourish, we need to start in the schools with students to meet their social, emotional and academic needs so that they can be independent, healthy, strong members of society.”

The first cohort consists of 13 paid interns and 18 students in practicum. Students in practicums spend one day a week in the schools, where they complete three hours of clinical work by seeing three clients back-to-back. Upon completing the practicum, some students will move into the more intensive internship experience, during which they will be in the schools full-time. Interns receive a stipend and tuition reimbursement for their internship credit hours through Project STAR funding. They’ll also receive reimbursement for travel and conference registration fees, along with free fingerprinting. In return, the interns are expected to serve in a high-need school district for one year following graduation.

“For most of them, that was the plan all along, so this helps encourage our students to continue to serve within high-need schools,” Zeligman says.

All counseling and school psychology students involved in Project STAR will be receiving evidence-based training pertinent to issues seen in schools today, including trauma and crisis intervention, school safety and cultural diversity. They’ll also be trained on multi-tiered systems of support to prepare them for intervening with the students they serve at various levels.

To measure the progress of both counseling and school psychology students and the students whom they are serving, Zeligman and her team will be measuring various factors of the school climate to determine any impact on detention, suspensions, truancy and absenteeism. Counseling and school psychology students will also document their growth by maintaining a log of the services they provide throughout their practicum and internship experiences to ensure the trainings they receive are effective.

“I think sometimes people just don’t fully understand what school counselors are doing, and the reality is that they’re doing this important work in the schools where there’s such a high need,” Zeligman says. “I also think our diverse student body at UCF and our designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution makes us well-positioned to help represent and serve the students within these communities.”

UCF’s contributors include the following faculty members and co-principal investigators: Oliver Edwards, professor of school psychology and chair of the Department of Counselor Education and School Psychology; Stacy Van Horn, senior lecturer of counselor education; J. Richelle Joe, associate professor of counselor education; Ann Shillingford, associate professor of counselor education; and K. Dayle Jones, associate professor of counselor education. Visiting lecturer Sarah Lawson serves as a consultant with the project.

Researcher Credentials

Kelchner is an associate professor of counselor education in the College of Community Innovation and Education’s Department of Counselor Education and School Psychology. She received her doctorate in counselor education and supervision from the University of South Florida. Her research focuses on supporting high-need youth and families, including those with unique abilities, through school-based family services and intervention programs.

Zeligman is an associate professor of counselor education in the college’s Department of Counselor Education and School Psychology. She received her doctorate in counselor education from UCF. Her research focuses on trauma work, including the experience of post-traumatic growth, the experiences of clients living with HIV/AIDS and other chronic illnesses, and clinical skill development for counselors-in-training.