A quartet of educators from UTEP's Department of Educational Psychology and Special Services earned a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to finance the education of 48 individuals who want to become K-12 counselors or special education teachers, as well as to develop technology-enhanced curricula and methods for greater collaborations. The members of Project BLESSED are, from left, Carleton Brown, Beverley Argus-Calvo, Anjanette Todd and Kristopher Yeager. Brown and Yeager are the co-principal investigators. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Marketing and Communications

UTEP to use $1.1M grant to Enrich Counseling, Special Ed Programs

Various traumas experienced by K-12 students in the Paso del Norte region during the past 10 years spurred Beverley Argus-Calvo, Ph.D., an associate professor and administrator at The University of Texas at El Paso, to consider academic solutions.

Argus-Calvo, chair of the College of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology and Special Services, said she witnessed how some educators did not always have the necessary time, tools or training to help their students who have mental health needs.

The UTEP educator began a discussion with several department colleagues with regard to potential interdisciplinary programs of study. The U.S. Department of Education awarded the team a five-year $1.1 million grant to finance the education of 48 educators as well as develop technology-enhanced curricula to include field experiences.

The four members of Project BLESSED (Bridging Leadership in Education: School counselor and Special Educator Development) met recently to discuss how they planned to achieve their goals, which also includes building greater collaborations between counselors and special educators in public schools.

“Systems of support available to students in schools are often fragmented,” Argus-Calvo said. “We want to give our (students) the tools to analyze situations as a team to benefit the K-12 students. Our students have not had access to those interdisciplinary perspectives.”

Calvo’s teammates on this research grant are Carleton Brown, Ph.D., associate professor, and Kristopher Yeager, Ph.D., and Anjanette Todd, Ph.D., assistant professors. Yeager and Brown, the grant’s co-principal investigators, fleshed out the concept specifically for the fields of special education and school counselors.

They explained that the first year would focus on planning and recruitment to include focus groups to gather information from special educators, school counselors and administrators as well as parents of students with disabilities to determine what the schools need. The team will use that information to develop an enhanced training model for future counselors and special educators to meet the distinctive needs of children in their schools.

The concepts and goals of Project BLESSED are a great opportunity for collaborations on many levels, said Crystal Leggett, a graduate student in school counseling who expects to earn her master’s degree in December 2021. She has been involved in K-12 education since 2005 and spent many years as a special education teacher.

“I believe the goals of Project BLESSED will enable counseling professionals to truly address the needs of this (special education) population through collaboration with others,” said Leggett, an El Paso native who earned her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with a minor in special education from UTEP in 2009. “Historically speaking, students with diverse needs have been underserved in all aspects of education. The pandemic has only illuminated this harsh reality. It is time to do better and truly support all students.”

The Region 19 Education Service Center, which serves El Paso and Hudspeth counties, has recognized the need to prepare special educators and school counselors who can collaborate to implement culturally responsive multi-tiered support systems to back the social-emotional learning and mental health of K-12 students. According to the grant application, Region 19 serves approximately 174,000 children. It identifies more than 84% as Hispanic, about 50% as English Language Learners, and more than 50% as at-risk. The Texas Education Agency’s 2019-20 Texas Academic Performance Report states that 20,443 students – or about 11.7% of registered Region 19 students – had a disability.

Albert Villa, a Region 19 project manager and behavior coach, said that it is important for the University to provide enhanced training in these fields because less than half of students educationally labeled as having an emotional or behavioral disorder will graduate. He is a two-time UTEP graduate who earned his bachelor’s in psychology in 1992 and his master’s in special education in 2008.

“There is a critical need for this type of teacher and counselor preparation to better understand mental health problems, the obstacles that students with emotional or behavioral issues experience inside and outside of the classroom, and the significance of the student-educator connection as a critical component for student success,” Villa said.

The grant application referred to a 2020 report that stated 6.3 million students ages 6 to 22 nationally fall into the special education category, to include many with chronic mental health needs. Despite the numbers, few special educators receive the proper training to serve those students. Research also has shown that students who receive help for mental health concerns will experience better results academically and as they transition into society.

The Project BLESSED team said the new curriculum would include leadership components and promote integrated support systems. Department faculty already have begun to introduce these interdisciplinary concepts into existing curriculum.

Brown said that the need for additional counselors became more acute recently because of ongoing border issues, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting in El Paso. He said school counselors with UTEP ties have reached out to the University for help. They told him they felt overworked and in need of enhanced training. Brown said he and several colleagues helped where possible, but the department faculty felt an obligation to do more.

He called this research project the college’s latest effort to fulfill its mission to understand the region’s needs, provide its students with the best programming possible, and introduce possible solutions to enhance the region’s well-being.

Yeager said the whole point of this grant was to build bridges.

“This grant will fund special educators and school counselors across the El Paso region to join forces in supporting the mental health needs of students with disabilities in public school settings,” he said.

Yeager added that the program would organize a two-to-three day summer workshop in 2022 and 2023 for school counselors and special educators to learn about the enhanced tools to help children and to learn how to collaborate better with each other. Organizers will ask schools to invite one counselor and one special educator, and they will cap each workshop at 40 participants. The team’s goal is for participants to return to their campuses and school districts and share what they learned.

Todd, whose course specialty is school counseling, said she was excited about the collaborative aspects of this grant. She and Argus-Calvo plan to spend a lot of time at district campuses that employ the cohort members.

The team will begin to recruit students for the cohorts during the spring 2022 semester. The first cohort will launch the following fall.

“Collaboration between special education and school counselors to help meet the needs of students with disabilities simply makes sense,” Brown said.

Author: Daniel Perez – UTEP Marketing and Communications