On-site social workers will be joining four Alachua County schools, thanks to a nearly $1 million federal grant.
Project Fortify is a competitive grant, also known as The Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Grant, administered by the Department of Education. Alachua County was one of 35 school districts in the country, and the only one in Florida, to receive the grant. There were more than 500 applicants, according to Everett Caudle, director of grants procurement and project development for Alachua County Public Schools.
The schools – Lake Forest, Rawlings, Metcalfe and Idylwild – will receive the money in increments for three years. The school district will receive about $317,000 the first year and about $331,000 the second and third years, Caudle said.
The schools were chosen because of the number of at-risk students, or students with an excessive number of absences and behavioral problems. Most of the students at these schools receive free or reduced lunch.
The goal, Caudle said, is to create an environment where students are more focused on class, rather than hunger or turmoil at home.
“Most of the people who work at the school know there’s a population at that school that could use extra help,” Caudle said. “Academics are always an extension of better behavior and attendance. The goal of this grant is to work on something that doesn’t always get dealt with.”
Each school already has a guidance counselor available, but often times, their time is consumed by testing, meetings and managing different programs.
“We’re trying to improve a set of services where there is a high level of need,” said Bill Goodman, supervisor of guidance services for Alachua County Public Schools.
The counselor-to-student ratio at each school is about 400- or 500-to-1, Goodman said. Having a social worker at each school will allow for students to receive more attention.
Two psychologists will rotate among the four schools in addition to the social workers. The psychologists will identify students in need of special services such as academic or behavioral intervention.
District staff will attend a mandatory meeting this week in Washington, D.C. to discuss implementing the grant. When they return, hiring the social workers and psychologists will be a top priority.
Patricia Phillips, principal of W.A. Metcalfe Elementary School, said the grant would allow guidance counselors to create small groups of students for counseling.
“I think to be able to focus on just being a student and not everything else that’s going on would really help the kids,” Phillips said. “We have a lot of little adults around here. We know they carry a lot of heavy things.”
Attendance and tardiness are Metcalfe’s biggest problems. Phillips said she hopes the social worker will help parents understand the importance of kids being in school, being on time and not leaving early.
“My ultimate hope is that it’s far reaching that once the grant is over, our parents already will know where they can get help or what type of help they can get for themselves and for their children,” Phillips said. “Bottom line, I want (students) to not even know there are adult issues.”