Benerd College awarded $5.6 million grant to expand K-12 mental health services

two people sitting at a table looking at a computer

Project lead Amy Scott Brown with graduate student Victoria Pacajoj Santos ’24

A $5.6 million grant recently awarded to University of the Pacific’s Benerd College will significantly expand access to mental health services within K-12 schools in San Joaquin Valley.

The funding from the U.S. Department of Education will cover the cost of tuition for graduate students in Benerd’s counseling and school psychology programs who will provide mental health services to high-need schools in the region.

It is the second-largest government grant ever won by the university. The first came earlier this year, a $6 million grant from the state to expand the social work program at the School of Health Sciences.

The five-year grant will begin in the 2023-24 academic year and will support eight graduate students a year for a total of 40 students.

“This grant will make a marked difference for our area schools, which are struggling to meet the mental health needs of their students” said Project Lead and Associate Professor Amy Scott Brown. “Schools are often the first—and sometimes only—resource for students to access mental health care.”

The San Joaquin Valley has a severe shortage of mental health providers. One area school district has only three school psychologists and three counselors to provide services to more than 6,600 students. 

Pacific has partnered with 23 local education agencies where graduate students will do their fieldwork and internships. After graduation, students must commit to work in one of the partner school districts for the number of years they were supported by the program.

The Pacific and Central Valley Schools Partnership includes: Empire Union School District, Escalon Unified School District, Great Valley Academy Modesto, Great Valley Academy Salida, Hickman Community Charter District, Linden Unified School District, Merced City School District, Merced Union High School District, New Jerusalem School District, Salida Union School District and all school districts and a charter school in Tuolumne County.

“We are excited about the partnership with Pacific and the culturally competent mental health services that will be provided to our students,” said Jamie Hughes ’98, assistant superintendent of educational and student services for Linden Unified School District. “Mental health services are much needed in our community and this partnership will allow us to expand access to those services.”

There also is a high need for counselors and psychologists who speak Spanish and other languages. Pacific will place bilingual graduate students where they are most needed.

Preference for tuition coverage will be given to people identified by school districts with an interest in becoming mental health service providers, people who live in nearby communities and those who are bilingual. Current Pacific students also are eligible for funding.

“Having my tuition covered in my last year of the school psychology program and a paid internship will greatly aid in the overall cost of my education,” said Victoria Pacajoj Santos ’24. “I’m excited to intern in a high-needs district and provide much-needed mental health services to the school-aged population.”

The Master of Arts in Education degree with a concentration in Counseling Psychology is a two-year program that trains students to become licensed professional clinical counselors.

The Education Specialist in School Psychology program is a master’s and credential program that trains students to become school psychologists. The program requires two years of coursework and a third-year internship.