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Broward Schools couldn't find enough counselors. The district started training its own

Cypress Bay High School students enter the campus in Weston on the first day of school in August.
Carl Juste
/
Miami Herald
The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to increased levels of stress and anxiety for students. But Broward County Public Schools has struggled to find social workers and school counselors. A new internship program aims to fix that. Above, Cypress Bay High School students enter the campus in Weston on the first day of school in August.

A $2 million federal grant is supporting an internship program aimed at creating a pipeline of mental health providers for schools.

Over the course of just a couple years, Chanel Littlejohn went from getting her master’s in social work at the University of Southern California, to counseling Broward County teachers through the pandemic, to taking student walk-ins at a school that experienced a mass shooting just a few years ago.

On her first day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, “it was like, boom! Students were coming into the wellness center, like, ‘I’m having a panic attack,’” Littlejohn recalled.

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Because of her internship training, she felt prepared.

“Usually I would, like, freak out and be overwhelmed,” she said. “But I was confident. I was able to actually open that door and have them sitting here. I was able to talk to them. I was able to go out there and get them from their class.”

Her newfound confidence, she said, came from her internship supervisors.

“They allowed me to think and reflect,” Littlejohn said. “If I brought a case to them and asked them a question, they would just turn it back to me and say, ‘Well, what do you think?,’ to get me to think critical and to be a problem solver.”

Littlejohn is one of 19 people who spent last academic year training as mental health care providers in Broward County Public Schools. The district then hired Littlejohn and five other members of the first intern class for this school year.

Funded by a $2 million federal grant, the internship program aims to create a pipeline for mental health care providers in schools. The district has struggled to recruit social workers and school counselors in the past, so now it is partnering with USC, as well as Florida Atlantic University and Barry University locally, to guide students from those institutions' graduate-level mental health programs into Broward classrooms.

This year’s cohort includes interns working not only in Broward but also in school districts in Palm Beach and Collier counties.

Sophia Loubeau, the internship program’s clinical facilitator, said the long-term goal is to reduce the ratio of counselors to students. The COVID-19 pandemic and the 2018 school shooting in Parkland have both contributed to students’ rising levels of stress and anxiety.

“The need that we've had in the district as it relates to mental health support for these students, the staff and families has grown exponentially,” she said.

The pandemic has brought more attention to students' mental health needs more broadly, as isolation, fear and loss have taken their toll on children and young adults.

Children of Our Future, a nonprofit based in Hollywood, specializes in providing counseling to Black and Caribbean families. The group targets the stigma that often surrounds seeking mental health care.

Another local effort to address the crisis was announced recently by the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The group partnered with the insurance company Simply Healthcare to launch a new website with local mental health care resources for families.

The site, SimplyHealthyMinds.com, also offers journal prompts, conversation starters and educational activities that parents and teachers can use to talk to kids about their mental health.