Project PROMISE aims to support students in high-needs city schools

Next spring, the College of Education’s Department of Educational Studies in Psychology, Research Methodology, and Counseling – in collaboration with the UA School of Social Work, the Capstone College of Nursing, and Tuscaloosa City Schools – will begin a federal grant-funded initiative aimed at addressing the mental health needs of students attending high-needs schools within Tuscaloosa City Schools. The initiative is part of the Department of Education’s Mental Health Service Professional (MHSP) Demonstration Grant Program.

Over five years, Project PROMISE – which stands for Promoting Mental Health Services and Equity – will educate 40 University of Alabama master’s students specializing in school counseling and social work and equip them with the skills and firsthand experience they need to be school-based mental health professionals working with students in high-needs schools.

Project PROMISE Principal Investigator Dr. Tongi Mugoya

The $5 million grant is dedicated to helping fill gaps that exist in Tuscaloosa City Schools’ education facilities. Through an interdisciplinary approach, project scholars will learn to provide proficient support and holistic mental health services to city school students in K-12.

“(At) the University and our College in particular, the philosophy has always been to conduct scholarship that is consequential to the community,” said Dr. Tongi Mugoya, Project PROMISE Principal Investigator and Associate Professor of Rehabilitation Counseling.

With faculty members from the College of Education, School of Social Work, and College of Nursing involved, the interdisciplinary collaboration fueling this initiative makes it stand out, he said.

“(It’s important) for our students to recognize that even though you may have specialized training as a school counselor, social worker, or even as a nurse, your goals are the same – to improve the mental health outcomes of students,” Dr. Mugoya said. “We need to start that interdisciplinary work. That’s why it is important for us to think about approaching our teaching from an interdisciplinary perspective.”

Co-principal Investigator Dr. Hee Lee

Project PROMISE Co-principal Investigator and Professor of Social Work Dr. Hee Lee noted that approximately one quarter of the state’s children have at least one emotional, developmental, or behavioral condition, and, in the last year, close to 40% of high school students have dealt with signs of depression. Due to the shortage of school-based mental health providers, however, most students in need of support don’t seek it in their schools. Dr. Lee is excited about the program and how it will address this issue.

“Our project is to combat these dire needs of mental health professionals and improve mental health outcomes in Alabama, especially among school-aged children in the Tuscaloosa City Schools district, by working with the interdisciplinary team,” she said. “We will increase the number and diversity of highly qualified school-based mental health professionals, including social workers and school counselors, who can properly assist students in high-needs schools.”

School counseling students will comprise one cohort while social work students make up the other, but their commitment as school-based mental health professionals is the same: Provide students with services that will nurture and better their mental health.

Tuscaloosa City Schools Superintendent Dr. Mike Daria

“Something like this helps us to be in the community, provide services in the community, and improve the lives of the people that we’re working with in the community,” Dr. Mugoya said.

As more and more people are realizing the negative roles poor mental health can play in society, it is pivotal to strive to address students’ needs as early as possible.

“It’s important to know what their mental health is to have it taken care of,” Dr. Mugoya said. “So that aspect of it, wherever I am in the cusp of trying to help solve this problem at the beginning, is really important for me.”

Another vital objective of the program is increasing the diversity of mental health professionals within high-needs schools as the majority of students are more likely to be from minority population, live in high poverty, or have low (supplemental education services), according to statistics, he said.

 “It is important to have diverse school-based mental health professionals as it has been shown in research that when talking with someone who has a similar background, the students are more likely to share whatever is going on with them,” Dr. Mugoya said.

As part of the partnership, Tuscaloosa City Schools will identify the high-needs schools where the project scholars will complete their field experience. The project scholars will also be teamed with a mentor who works in their assigned school and will provide guidance, share professional experience, and ensure they are meeting their field experience requirements. The goal is for all program scholars, once they’ve completed training, to apply their specialized knowledge at a high-needs school, whether in Tuscaloosa City Schools or another area requiring assistance.

“We know that in order for all students to be successful, they need quality learning experiences and equally strong support,” said Dr. Mike Daria, Tuscaloosa City Schools superintendent. “School mental health professionals are an essential part of our success. Project PROMISE is a collaborative effort that will bring diverse candidates to the school social work and school counseling field who will become fully prepared to meet the needs of our students and their families.”

The grant funding will make it possible for Project PROMISE to pay the tuition of each of the program’s master’s students as well as the salaries of two graduates from each cohort to work within Tuscaloosa City Schools for two years.

“The Tuscaloosa City Schools actually will endeavor to have those people continue and work with them beyond the grant,” Dr. Mugoya said.

As part of the project, undergraduate students from area HBCUs will be invited to attend an institute on campus to learn more about school-based mental health professions and the project itself.

“We are excited about this program, about the project, and the buy-in we will get from the project scholars, because in the end, they are the engine,” he said, adding that he is looking forward to the start of the project and hopes it will spark the students’ interests in efforts to address mental health issues in high-needs districts.

Dr. Mugoya is passionate about lifting the lives of those who face more barriers than others through his work, and as someone who received some assistance from scholarships and took part in assistantships while attending graduate school, he said he knows precisely how crucial opportunities like Project PROMISE can be.

“I can definitely say that I’ve been lucky to be where I am” he said. “I know where I am. I know what it feels to be a student in that kind of setting. Having the ability to also assist someone to move forward like that – it feels good to have that kind of opportunity.”