Star Tribune

By Trey Mewes

ROCHESTER – Public schools here will hire four more social workers over the next five years thanks to a partnership with Winona State University that officials say is a model for increasing student access to mental health providers throughout the U.S.

"The idea here with this important pilot that the entire state will be watching is to say, well, what if we give extra incentives for people to go into certain kinds of jobs like mental health?" said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

Klobuchar was in Rochester on Monday to tout the partnership between Rochester Public Schools and Winona State, funded by a nearly $2 million federal grant through 2027. The grant is among 100 awarded nationwide and the only one given in Minnesota.

That money will go toward 30 scholarships to Winona State's master's degree program in social work, along with internship placements in Rochester schools. It will also fund additional social worker jobs within the district, with one job added per year starting in 2024.

In Rochester schools, there are only 32 mental health practitioners – including social workers, counselors and psychologists – supporting more than 17,000 students.

Rochester Superintendent Kent Pekel said there are about 414 students for every one social worker, far exceeding national recommendations of about 250 students to one social worker. The new partnership will cut that ratio to 377 students per social worker.

"That's not where we need to be, but it's headed in the right direction," Pekel said.

He said students mainly struggle with anxiety and depression, but officials are concerned those issues could become more severe without help.

Minnesota Student Survey data from 2022 shows about a third of Rochester's 11th-graders have seriously contemplated suicide and 11% have attempted it. That's an increase from 2019 survey data, when about 27% of juniors reported contemplating suicide and about 9% reported a suicide attempt.

Akilah Sharif, a social worker at Kellogg Middle School, said the new program is key to helping more students navigate the challenges they face at school, home or in the community.

"If you are just constantly treating the fruit of the concern and not addressing the roots, then you're never going to get far," Sharif said.

The pilot program comes as Minnesota looks to solve a mental health access crisis compounded by an ongoing provider shortage. The Minnesota Legislature last year allocated $93 million toward mental health services, much of it going to schools; lawmakers are considering even more funding this spring.

In recent years, lawmakers have considered streamlining licensing requirements to boost Minnesota's mental health workforce. Klobuchar said it's difficult for legislators to affect licensing policy at the national level since it varies by state, but there's growing interest in addressing federal mental health gaps.

She pointed to the $11 billion in mental health money included in the gun safety bill Congress passed last year, ongoing COVID funding and recent legislation to boost mental health parity in insurance coverage as positive steps, but more funding would likely be needed in the future.

District officials say they plan to continue the partnership with Winona State after the federal grant money ends in 2027.