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Jackson County secures grant to address mental health with schools

SYLVA, NC – Mental health services for students in Jackson County Public Schools will soon be expanded thanks to a five-year grant from Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education) also known as Project ACTIVATE (Advancing Coordinated and Timely InterVentions, Awareness, Training and Education).

The federally funded program was created by the NC Department of Public Instruction and the NC Department of Health and Human Services to promote student wellbeing, healthy behaviors and interventions to address mental health problems before they occur.

Pilot sites have been operating for the past three years in Beaufort, Cleveland and Rockingham County Schools.  Jackson County Public Schools is part of a second cohort that also includes Nash and Sampson County Schools.

The need for better mental health resources in Jackson County came to light in 2018 when a group of high school students made a formal request to the Jackson County Board of Education to improve access to mental health services.  At that time, the district’s staff-to-student ratio for mental health providers trailed the national average.  But change came quickly, and much progress has been made.

A financial commitment from county commissioners combined with state and federal funding allowed the district to hire enough school social workers, nurses and counselors to provide adequate basic services to the district’s nine schools.

Director of Student Support Services Kelly Doppke said the rapid improvement by the district got the attention of Project ACTIVATE leaders.

“They approached us and said, ‘The work we see you doing in Jackson County aligns with what we do with Project ACTIVATE,’” Doppke recalled.  “So, we submitted a letter of support and a grant application.”

In the first year, JCPS will receive $322,963 to pay for personnel including mental health clinicians as well as training, travel, supplies and materials.  School leaders will also have access to the three pilot districts to learn from their experience and replicate successful practices.

Doppke emphasized that the grant does not supplant existing funds.  Instead, it provides the means to extend services beyond what is possible with the current staff.

“A school counselor, social worker and nurse provide core support to students, but their goal is short-term intervention,” Doppke said.  “Our clinical providers will be able to work on long-term goals with students.  So, they are more of a therapeutic support, and that’s the gap we’re hoping to fill with the Project ACTIVATE funding.”

The district plans to have staff hired by November 30th with clinical support beginning no later than January 30th.

“We hope to build sustainability so we can keep this model far beyond five years,” Doppke said.  “It’s a vision we’ve had for a long time, and this grant gives us the funding to get started.  I’m excited about it.”

Superintendent Dr. Dana Ayers acknowledged the quality of the services already being provided by the district, but also looked forward to the expanded offerings made possible by the grant.

“Our mental health services are some of the stronger ones I have seen in the surrounding area,” Ayers said.  “The grant adds the clinician and therapist pieces that we are missing.  It will help our youngest learners all the way through our high school learners to make them successful in the academic arena, but also to be well-rounded citizens.”

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