Duval school therapist expansion now fully funded

Duval County students will soon have better access to mental health therapeutic services.

The number of therapists providing services for local students is increasing, as are the number of schools who have a dedicated therapist, following boosts in both local and state funding.

One batch of changes is for the “Full Service Schools” program. It began in 1991, and connects students and families with therapeutic, health, and social services by creating “hubs”, from which therapists serve schools. Leading up to now, there were 26 therapists serving 75 schools.

Through the Duval County Public School District, the City of Jacksonville, and private funding, that therapist-to-school ratio is being improved to 26 therapists over 57 schools, meaning each of the existing therapists has fewer schools and students to manage.

Tuesday night, the Duval County School Board further voted to approve a $2,321,000 million expansion of their contract with the United Way of Northeast Florida for the FSS program, to add 36 more therapists to cover an additional 63 schools.

That funding comes from state dollars, as part of new school safety laws passed in response to the Parkland mass shooting.

In all, this means FSS will soon cover 120 schools with 52 therapists.

“Have helped make possible an opportunity for us to expand mental health services to every child in the whole District,” says United Way of Northeast Florida President and CEO Michelle Braun.

United Way of Northeast Florida manages the contracted providers under this program, which are currently Jewish Family Community Services, Child Guidance Center, Daniel Memorial, Children’s Home Society, and Family Foundations.

Additionally, the “Full Service Schools PLUS” program is growing. This started as a pilot in 2015, but those involved say they’ve seen huge success. Under this initiative, there is one therapist assigned to one school, due to “Early Warning Indicators” like low attendance and high discipline rates. Until now, there were 12 schools in this program, but $1.7 million in additional funding from the City of Jacksonville’s new budget will add 28 more sites. That means 40 total schools will each have a dedicated therapist, with the program managed directly through Jacksonville’s Kids Hope Alliance.

“It’s a true collaboration, a true partnership, and it will pay huge dividends for our students,” says School Board Member Ashley Smith Juarez.

IN DEPTH: Jacksonville's $1.2 billion City budget 

The total budget for FSS and FSS PLUS was $5.5 million in the prior fiscal year, between the City, DCPS, private donations- largely the United Way- and Medicaid billing. That is now up to around $7.2 million, according to KHA.

While the focus is increased mental health services for students, there is also after-school tutoring, mentoring, family counseling, health services, and more. School Board Member Becki Couch says the expansion is especially important for some of the more rural areas, like where she represents.

“We’re able to reach communities that really have very little access,” she says.

A student can be referred for counseling from anyone, including non-school personnel like family. The counselor vets the request, then obtains consent from a parent. Services under the programs are handled during school hours, in a dedicated office on the campus.

Data obtained by WOKV shows the number of referrals for FSS mental health counseling and social services has gradually risen each of the last three years, which the District credits to heightened awareness and a move that started a few years ago toward improving the program.

“I want to say a tremendous thank you to those partners who knew at that time and in that moment that there was a growing need and an acute need for more mental health services,” Smith Juarez says.

Since then, she says they’ve seen wait times for services fall, and she expects improvements to continue as more resources are put in.

FSS data provided by the District further shows that nearly all of the students who go through counseling see improved overall functioning, when rated with an assessment used in the state. Some of the measured gains in the last year include students going through treatment and then advancing to the next grade, or a parent or guardian finding an improvement in behavior.

Therapists under this program must be at least a therapist or clinician with a Master’s degree in mental health counseling, social work, psychology, or marriage and family counseling, with all appropriate licenses, according to the contract between DCPS and the United Way of Northeast Florida. They go through background screenings as well.

Anyone who thinks a student needs help can make a referral, and there are some services available for certain communities as well. DCPS has a full list of those locations and referral instructions on their website.

DCPS says their understanding is that the State funding will be recurring, allowing them to continue this high level of service. The City and DCPS dollars have likewise been baked in to the respective budgets, at this point. DCPS says they continue working with partners to ensure this program will be sustainable.