Five years ago, cuts in state funding for the Juneau School District forced officials to cut five counselor positions. Now, Interim Superintendent Bridget Weiss is “pretty confident” that a federal grant will help replace three of those counselors.
The Alaska Department of Education approached the district earlier in the year about applying for the Project AWARE grant, a federal grant that states and tribes can apply to for three school districts in state.
Alaska has received this federal grant before, and state officials now hope they can get the award again to help three new school districts. The five-year term for the three Alaska districts currently receiving the grant — Anchorage, Kenai Peninsula Borough and Mat-Su Borough school districts — will end on Sep. 30, 2019. Juneau is one of three districts being used to apply for the grant in Alaska; the other two are Fairbanks and Sitka.
“This grant saves lives,” said Sharon Fishel, an education specialist for the Alaska Department of Education who is writing the application for the grant, due by midnight on Christmas Eve. The state is competing against potentially 25 to 30 other states for the eight available grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Weiss says her confidence in receiving this grant stems from the fact Alaska obtained and fulfilled the grant before. And the need in the schools in Juneau is great after recent budget cuts in Juneau and across the state.
“We lost six adults between four schools at the secondary level,” said Weiss. “Grants are just one way right now that we have access to back filling some of that need.”
The grant would award the Juneau School District $400,000 each year for five years, according to Weiss’s superintendent report given to the school board at a meeting on Tuesday night. Money will primarily fund up to three additional social workers/counselors. The counselors would likely work at Floyd Dryden Middle School, Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School and the alternative high school, Yaakoosege Daakahidi, said Weiss.
“I believe we’re a good candidate because we have so much baseline frame of readiness with all the other trauma-informed work we’re doing, and our commitment to initiatives around restorative practices and our other trauma-informed grants that we’re doing at the elementary level,” Weiss said.
Restorative practices are new alternatives to traditional discipline that emphasize reparation over retribution, and can be used to reduce racial disparity in discipline and cause students to be more emotionally invested in following the rules.
While Weiss said they have still been doing great work with the counseling at the schools despite cutbacks, three extra counselors would help them to be more proactive with mental and behavioral health of the students.
“It’s really challenging to get ahead of the curve,” she said. “When you have one counselor for about 600 students, all they can do is sort of manage the immediate needs.”
She hopes new counselors would be able to work more in reaching out proactively to families of students before problems become serious.
For the last Project AWARE grant Alaska received, the state department of education chose all alternative schools for the grant. Now, they hope to expand their model to a larger base that includes traditional schools, such as Dzantik’i Heeni and Floyd Dryden. The grant provides money that goes directly to the school districts, but also has a portion that would go towards statewide initiatives. Over the course of five years, the state would receive $9 million total.
“We do trainings in each of the schools,” Fishel said. “It’s kind of like CPR for mental health. You only know when someone has a physical illness, but you don’t always recognize when someone has a mental illness.”
Through the previous grant, the Department of Education held three trainings a year for both youth and adults. Fishel said Juneau School District hopes to have all of its staff certified in this, as well as in Fairbanks and Sitka.
In Juneau, Weiss hopes the grant will help alleviate some of the cumulative effects that have happened as a result of state budget cuts. The significant amount of time they’ve had limited resources impacts everything, she said.
“There’s a human resource that is so valuable, and there’s a cost to not having the same level of human resource,” Weiss said.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration will announce the winners of the grant on March 31, Fishel said.
• Contact reporter Mollie Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 523-2228.