PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — St. Lucie County Public Schools have been awarded a $1.6 million grant to offer its employees the chance to earn a master's degree in the field of mental health counseling from Florida Atlantic University.
The grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education will allow select employees who apply to the program and are accepted to earn their masters degree at one-third the cost.
The opportunities for graduates looking to work in the field of mental health are abundant, but so is the competition.
"What we are finding is that every district has been adding positions in those fields, so it has become very competitive," said Dr. Helen Wild, Chief Academic Officer, St. Lucie County Public Schools.
Right now there are 500 students to every one mental health counselor in the district. The school district wants to decrease that ratio to 250 students for every one counselor.
The lack of counselors is challenging. They have methods to make sure they are reaching every student like speaking to entire classrooms and assemblies to make the students more comfortable to approach them one on one.
"It can be a challenge but the more connections that you make on a global level, the more you get to know your students," said April Mincey, Coordinator for Guidance and Advisement, St. Lucie County Public Schools.
Dr. Wild said many teachers have expressed interest in mental health counseling positions, but the job requires a master's in counselor education.
"Sometimes when individuals discover the length of the program and the cost, they avoid it," said Dr. Wild.
Dr. Wild said it can cost up to $25,000, including books and fees, to go through the program, but thanks to the grant, the district is partnering with Florida Atlantic University to offer the program to district employees at one-third of that cost.
"Especially with the character and drive that it takes to do this job, if that's the barrier, scheduling, and money and we can overcome that, it's the most thrilling thing," added Mincey.
Right now the district has 80 counselors for 38 schools. The program will graduate 75 candidates over five years that will replace counselors who are retiring and aims to fill new positions as they are added.