University of Oklahoma researchers Kendra Williams Diehm, Brittany Hott, Cian Brown and Christina Miller are leading an effort to train 64 school-based behavior analysts, counselors and social workers in rural Oklahoma.

Courtesy of University of Oklahoma Research

‘We’ve got to do something’: University of Oklahoma researchers aim to get more counselors, behavior analysts, social workers in rural schools

Researchers at the University of Oklahoma are using a $5.6 million federal grant to implement the “Project Rural Innovation for Mental health Enhancement” or PRIME program. 

The program intends to fill the gaps in high-need, rural school districts by recruiting and training 64 future counselors, social workers and behavior analysts from rural communities and paying for their graduate tuition, fees and costs while in the program. 

In exchange, graduates agree to serve two years in a rural, high-need school for every year they received program funding. 

School districts in the program must have at least 20% poverty rates and meet the federal criteria for being a rural school. 

PRIME’s lead researcher, Brittany Hott, said rural communities have been clamoring to be part of the program. Hott is an associate professor of special education and associate director of OU’s Institute for Society and Community Transformation.

“There’s so much need that this is just the start, and we’re hoping to create a ripple effect once we have this set of scholars trained,” Hott said. “Hopefully, we’re able to collectively make a difference in the shortage.”

In Oklahoma, the school counselor-to-student ratio is 398:1. According to the American School Counselor Association, the ideal ratio would be no more than 250:1. However, only two states — New Hampshire and Vermont — meet those criteria.

Studies have shown students who have access to school counselors have better academic outcomes and behavior outcomes, and have better college and career readiness. And the stakes in Oklahoma are high — a report from the Rural School and Community Trust places the state 4th in the nation for educational needs in rural districts.

Hott said by paying for participants’ tuition, fees and expenses, and linking them with professional organizations, the program is trying to make earning the degree more accessible.

“For example, students who are becoming behavior analysts need 2,000 hours of supervised field work. That’s a lot of hours,” Hott said. “And the quality of that supervision is directly linked with outcomes for children and with their ability to be successful. And so, we feel very committed to that quality of supervision, quality of coursework, quality of support. (…) We’re hoping with this mentorship model in this community of practice, that we eliminate the exiting that happens in their field.”

The researchers are developing a “Networked Community of Practice,” in partnership with rural school districts and dozens of education-focused organizations and nonprofits, such as the Oklahoma Association for Behavior Analysts, the American Council on Rural Special Education and the Oklahoma Parent Resource Center.

The grant will last for five years, at which point Hott said the team plans to reapply to the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education for another grant. The first cohort of social workers began this semester, and the first cohort of behavior analysts and counselors will start in the fall. 

It’s one thing to read about schools’ needs, but Hott said working with school districts hands-on reinforces the urgency of those needs. 

“We’re learning about, ‘Yes, this is the need on paper, and this is the need when you look at this from a purely numbers standpoint,” Hott said. “But now we’re seeing the need of, ‘Hey, I really need a counselor. I’ve got kids in crisis. I not only have kids in crisis, my teachers aren’t doing well.’ We need to be part of this. There’s that human piece of, ‘We’ve got to do something.’”