When Pam Matthews became a teacher in 1981, it was rare for even one of her students in southeast Oklahoma to have divorced parents. Now, kids who haven’t experienced the emotional toll of divorce are the exception. 

Three years ago, Matthews became the superintendent at Lane Public Schools — a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade district serving 250 students about 2½ hours southeast of Oklahoma City. 

After working in education for nearly four decades, Matthews said students’ mental health is at an all-time low. She said they struggle to cope with family stress, which increased during the pandemic as unemployment spiked and physical and mental health declined. In rural areas like Lane, it is difficult to find help. 

A new state initiative aims to increase support for struggling students. But administrators from some of Oklahoma’s small, rural districts said the effort doesn’t address their community’s needs.

District officials said even if they received the funding, a shortage of mental health professionals in rural parts of the state would make it nearly impossible to find qualified candidates. 

Of the state’s 529 school districts, 35% applied for the School Counselor Corps program, which beginning this school year provides half of the salary and benefits to hire new school counselors or licensed mental health professionals for three years. Districts are responsible for the remaining costs.  

Every district that applied was awarded the full amount they requested, said Annette Price, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Education. 

Nearly $35.7 million in federal pandemic relief funds were awarded to 186 districts, including six charter schools and a cooperative of districts in and around Osage County that will fund positions in six districts. More than 300 new school counselors, social workers, licensed mental health professionals and recreational therapists were funded through the initiative, which was announced days after an Oklahoma Watch investigation found that schools are often the only resource for rural students in crises. 

These new positions will improve Oklahoma’s counselor-to-student ratio. Students at schools with the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of one counselor per 250 students tend to miss less school and have higher test scores, according to research. Oklahoma currently has an average of one counselor per 411 students. 

The U.S. Department of Education touted Oklahoma’s Counselor Corps initiative in an announcement last month praising the use of funds for mental health support. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona highlighted the program on Twitter as one of six “amazing examples” of states addressing student needs.

The grant, however, leaves rural districts at a disadvantage, according to Matthews and her eastern Oklahoma counterparts in Peggs, Lowery and Shady Grove.

None of those districts had a school counselor on staff during the 2020-21 school year. Yet only one applied for the grant, despite heightened mental health challenges brought on by the pandemic. 

“We need a counselor on site who can help our kids deal with things like when a parent dies or loses a job,” Matthews said. “But that’s just not an easy thing to do in smaller districts like ours with limited resources.”

Large Districts Capitalize on Grant

Quanetta Broom, a school counselor at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Oklahoma City, said it is easier to help kids learn how to cope if they can first understand what they’re feeling and why. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

More than 75% of Oklahoma’s school districts have fewer than 1,000 students, according to state enrollment data. And while they were all eligible, only one-third of those districts applied for the grants. More than half of the state’s larger districts applied for and received funding. (See sortable table below)

Tulsa Public Schools will also add 12 counselors, including six focused on college and careers and six mental health specialists starting this fall. Edmond Public Schools will add five elementary school counselors and three high school counselors. 

Epic Charter Schools, which is among the state’s largest districts and one of the largest virtual charter schools in the nation, did not apply for the grant. 

Lowrey Superintendent Cris Wyse said his district, located 20 miles northwest of Tahlequah, cannot afford to pay its share for even one school counselor despite receiving $715,000 from a federal emergency relief program. He also said the application’s two-week turnaround didn’t leave enough time for staff to prepare the required information, which included student demographic information, a budget breakdown, a description of the new positions and how they would be evaluated. 

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State education officials said the quick turnaround was necessary to give districts that received the grants enough time to post the positions, interview candidates and train new staff for the upcoming school year. 

Matthews and Shady Grove Superintendent Emmett Thompson echoed Wyse’s concerns and added that access to qualified candidates provides another challenge for rural districts. 

Peggs Superintendent John Cox did apply and received funding for a new licensed professional counselor for his 200-student district. He personally filled out the application and plans to move a part-time teacher, who is already licensed, into a full-time counseling position next school year. 

Cox is president of the Organization of Rural Elementary Schools, a coalition that represents more than 100 schools statewide. He said many rural schools can’t afford to take a teacher out of the classroom. It’s difficult to attract licensed counselors to schools when they can make more money in private practice, he said.

“If I was in a different situation where I didn’t have access to a counselor… it would almost feel like it would be a waste of time to write the application because I wouldn’t be able to find somebody if I was awarded,” Cox said. 

This concern is heightened for districts in what state education officials call mental health deserts, pockets of eastern and western Oklahoma where there are as few as one mental health provider per 150,000 people.  

Re-Emphasizing the Role of School Counselor

A second grader at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Oklahoma City listens to a lesson about kindness during a summer program on June 16, 2021. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

While licensed counselors are in short supply, there is an abundance of certified school counselors, which have different training and requirements from licensed mental health providers. 

Oklahoma has more than 700 certified school counselors currently working as teachers, according to unpublished research conducted by the Oklahoma Educator Supply and Demand Network state education officials said. 

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said over the past decade these counselors were asked to move into the classroom amid Oklahoma’s teacher shortage. Now, the state will again look to these counselors to meet student needs. 

“As we are seeing more teachers coming into schools, then we are able to replace them with another teacher and pull that licensed professional counselor or our credentialed school counselor back into the role,” Hofmeister said.  

Hofmeister said the grant protects counselors from being used as a “catchall in the administrative office.” 

School counselor duties often include test proctoring, lunch or recess duty, data entry and other tasks that do not require counseling credentials. The grant refers districts to American School Counselor Association guidelines for appropriate and inappropriate duties, and mandates that the counselors work “only in roles that reflect their professional expertise.” 

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Oklahoma City Public Schools, the state’s largest urban district, will add 12 new mental health professionals and a coordinator through the grant. 

Since 2019, the district of more than 30,000 students has been ramping up its team of counselors and mental health providers in an effort to boost students’ academic success by helping them cope with stress at home that often creates distractions in the classroom. The district added counselors, worked closely with social workers to get resources to parents in need of food or other assistance and hired a director of mental health to coordinate the effort. 

Now, the district has at least one counselor at every school, which was a goal of the Pathway to Greatness Plan to boost student wellbeing. 

Deputy Superintendent Jason Brown said the district cut costs elsewhere, like reducing professional development, to fund the efforts. 

“Those things are still important,” Brown said. “But they were less important than mental health.” 

‘These Kids Need Someone They Can Trust’

Quanetta Broom, a school counselor at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Oklahoma City, listened as students told her about compliments they were paid that made them feel happy on June 16, 2021. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

On a Wednesday morning in a classroom on the second floor of Cesar Chavez Elementary School, Quanetta Broom reads to a small group of second graders during summer school. 

Broom raises and lowers her voice emphatically as she paces around the room holding up the book to show off pictures of a bucket. The bucket, she explains, is for positive emotions. She compliments a student’s drawing and explains how that helps fill up both of their buckets. She smiles under her blue mask and then giggles with the students as she realizes they can’t see the smile. 

“We can smile with our eyes,” she tells them. “That fills up the bucket, too.”

Saying something mean to another student or experiencing something sad at home can empty the bucket, too. 

Broom has been a school counselor for six years. When she started with the district, she worked at two schools. She spent one day a week at Oakridge Elementary, which made it difficult to build relationships and trust with students. On the other four days, she was the only counselor at Cesar Chavez so she was constantly responding to kids in crisis. 

“I was having to turn away kids, especially those friends that would come by a lot,” Broom said. “I was reacting instead of being proactive because that’s all I could do to keep up.”

Now, Broom is one of two full-time counselors at Cesar Chavez. 

She spends time in classrooms teaching second graders about their feelings and helping fourth graders learn coping techniques. 

And she makes time for her “friends,” students who frequently show up to her colorful office to talk. 

“I have a friend who comes by pretty much every morning around this time,” she said looking at her clock as 9 a.m. approached. “These kids need someone to talk to, someone they can trust and those positive relationships, they can change everything.”

Grants Totaling $35 Million Bring Mental Health Counselors to Schools Statewide

The Oklahoma State Department of Education awarded $35.7 million in federal pandemic relief funds to school districts across the state to increase the number of counselors and mental health professionals in schools. School Counselor Corps grants were awarded to 193 districts, including six charter schools and a cooperative of 13 smaller districts in and around Osage County that applied together. The grants will support more than 300 new school counselors, social workers, licensed mental health professionals and recreational therapists. The funds will be spread out over three years beginning in the fall and require matching funds from the districts.
CountySchool District2020-21
Enrollment
Grant Award
TulsaBroken Arrow18,619$1,620,000
OklahomaOklahoma City31,026$1,338,000
TulsaTulsa32,569$1,332,000
PittsburgMcAlester2,900$1,038,000
ClevelandMoore23,390$825,000
Le FlorePoteau2,155$810,000
OklahomaEdmond23,496$768,000
OklahomaPutnam City17,829$666,000
DelawareGrove2,305$573,000
KayPonca City4,408$560,400
CreekSapulpa3,562$540,000
MuskogeeHilldale1,936$537,000
CanadianMustang11,868$534,000
Osage *Osage County Inter-Local Coop *4,779$522,000
McClainNewcastle2,292$498,000
CherokeeTahlequah3,516$480,000
LoganGuthrie2,623$474,000
ClevelandNorman14,419$384,000
OklahomaOklahoma Virtual Charter Academy4,011$378,000
CaddoAnadarko1,495$375,000
ComancheLawton12,897$372,000
MayesLocust Grove1,299$372,000
GradyChickasha2,050$366,000
KingfisherKingfisher1,373$318,000
SeminoleWewoka647$318,000
TexasGuymon2,956$315,000
KingfisherHennessey846$315,000
WashingtonBartlesville5,828$288,000
CanadianEl Reno2,648$288,000
CarterLone Grove1,364$288,000
OklahomaOklahoma Connections Academy1,779$288,000
PayneStillwater5,668$288,000
PottawatomieShawnee3,392$285,000
MuskogeeMuskogee4,794$279,000
GradyTuttle1,843$276,000
OkmulgeeOkmulgee1,117$252,000
CanadianPiedmont4,416$252,000
TulsaBixby6,560$222,000
TulsaCollinsville2,852$222,000
CreekOlive248$222,000
AdairStilwell1,347$222,000
OklahomaInsight School Of Oklahoma800$219,000
MarshallKingston1,124$219,000
ClevelandNoble2,777$219,000
GradyAlex288$216,000
OklahomaBethany1,703$192,000
ComancheCache1,936$192,000
McIntoshChecotah1,336$192,000
OklahomaDove Schools Of OKC1,504$192,000
GarfieldEnid7,390$192,000
PottawatomieTecumseh1,923$192,000
AdairWestville999$192,000
CharterTulsa Legacy Charter633$192,000
LincolnChandler1,100$189,000
OkmulgeeHenryetta1,055$189,000
MarshallMadill1,709$189,000
SequoyahRoland838$189,000
CharterTulsa Honor Academy437$189,000
SequoyahBelfonte158$186,000
PontotocStonewall413$186,000
DeweyTaloga100$186,000
CharterKipp OKC College Prep465$180,000
CarterArdmore2,693$172,503
CharterSanta Fe South3,636$171,000
AlfalfaCherokee410$136,500
GarvinWynnewood698$135,000
McClainBlanchard1,937$126,000
BlaineCanton312$126,000
StephensComanche922$126,000
OklahomaDeer Creek6,741$126,000
TillmanFrederick825$126,000
OklahomaMillwood905$126,000
CherokeePeggs199$126,000
AdairRocky Mountain165$126,000
GradyRush Springs453$126,000
CherokeeTenkiller250$126,000
SeminoleVarnum340$126,000
PushmatahaAlbion61$96,000
CreekAllen-Bowden259$96,000
AtokaAtoka870$96,000
TulsaBerryhill1,133$96,000
CottonBig Pasture191$96,000
MuskogeeBraggs115$96,000
WashingtonCaney Valley771$96,000
CaddoCarnegie532$96,000
AdairCave Springs165$96,000
GarfieldChisholm1,148$96,000
OklahomaChoctaw-Nicoma Park5,329$96,000
PushmatahaClayton252$96,000
LoganCoyle257$96,000
LoganCrescent552$96,000
OklahomaCrutcho298$96,000
McCurtainDenison295$96,000
CarterDickson1,286$96,000
CreekDrumright417$96,000
JacksonDuke148$96,000
ComancheElgin2,306$96,000
McIntoshEufaula1,112$96,000
MuskogeeFort Gibson1,743$96,000
ChoctawFort Towson315$96,000
TulsaGlenpool2,668$96,000
CreekGypsy55$96,000
McIntoshHanna72$96,000
MuskogeeHaskell650$96,000
Le FloreHowe626$96,000
CaddoHydro-Eakly467$96,000
RogersInola1,197$96,000
SeminoleJustice138$96,000
CraigKetchum560$96,000
KayKildare102$96,000
DelawareLeach141$96,000
ClevelandLexington946$96,000
TulsaLiberty469$96,000
McCurtainLukfata366$96,000
JohnstonMannsville95$96,000
AdairMaryetta636$96,000
OklahomaMidwest City-Del City11,044$96,000
JohnstonMilburn196$96,000
JohnstonMill Creek159$96,000
OkmulgeeMorris953$96,000
CreekMounds576$96,000
PottawatomieNorth Rock Creek1,114$96,000
DelawareOaks-Mission173$96,000
KingfisherOkarche387$96,000
MuskogeeOktaha656$96,000
JacksonOlustee-Eldorado180$96,000
MayesOsage143$96,000
KayPeckham104$96,000
PittsburgPittsburg162$96,000
LincolnPrague948$96,000
CreekPretty Water232$96,000
McClainPurcell1,356$96,000
OttawaQuapaw563$96,000
PittsburgQuinton387$96,000
PushmatahaRattan440$96,000
PayneRipley413$96,000
CanadianRiverside152$96,000
MayesSalina741$96,000
TulsaSand Springs4,879$96,000
SeminoleSeminole1,399$96,000
WashitaSentinel315$96,000
RogersSequoyah1,239$96,000
TulsaSkiatook2,199$96,000
McCurtainSmithville264$96,000
PottawatomieSouth Rock Creek403$96,000
Le FloreSpiro1,029$96,000
HaskellStigler1,187$96,000
GarvinStratford608$96,000
JohnstonTishomingo841$96,000
TexasTyrone221$96,000
CanadianUnion City300$96,000
PontotocVanoss485$96,000
RogersVerdigris1,356$96,000
SequoyahVian809$96,000
McClainWashington1,005$96,000
LincolnWellston510$96,000
Le FloreWhitesboro192$96,000
LatimerWilburton834$96,000
CarterWilson416$96,000
OttawaWyandotte725$96,000
BryanColbert718$93,000
MurrayDavis893$93,000
KayTonkawa785$93,000
CharterTulsa Collegiate Hall296$93,000
Le FloreHeavener859$90,000
GradyMinco523$90,000
LoveThackerville287$90,000
GradyVerden282$90,000
CanadianDarlington228$83,160
TillmanGrandfield215$75,600
JeffersonRyan221$60,000
McCurtainForest Grove125$49,536
PontotocAllen464$48,000
CherokeeHulbert528$48,000
CarterSpringer193$45,000
GarvinMaysville283$41,400
LincolnWhite Rock113$37,800
TexasGoodwell216$36,000
McCurtainValliant908$30,600
GradyFriend245$24,000
WoodwardMooreland561$96,000

* This cooperative is made up of 13 districts in and around Osage County. The enrollment total includes all 13 districts. Six of those districts applied and received a shared grant.

Jennifer Palmer contributed to this report. 

CORRECTION: This story originally reported that all 13 districts in the Osage County cooperative applied for and received funding. Only six of the districts applied. All of those received funding.

Whitney Bryen is an investigative reporter and visual storyteller at Oklahoma Watch with an emphasis on domestic violence, mental health and nursing homes affected by COVID-19. Contact her at (405) 201-6057 or wbryen@oklahomawatch.org. Follow her on Twitter @SoonerReporter.


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