Schools all across the country aren’t just dealing with a teacher shortage. They’re also facing a school counselor shortage.

In our latest Saving Our Streets report, WESH 2’s Marlei Martinez tells us how UCF is bringing free counseling services to a local school.

“Some of my students know classmates that have been lost to gun violence. They’re kids,” Jania Fuller said.

Fuller sees first-hand how much mental health resources are needed for students in Orange County.

She works with and for students at ACE, the Academic Center for Excellence, an Orange County Public School in Parramore.

“Luckily here, we do have a full-time school social worker, but that is not enough,” she said. “We have 1,000 students at our school.”

Meanwhile, the American Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students.

“Florida is nowhere near that,” Melissa Zeligman said.

And that is where UCF comes in. Zeligman is an associate professor of counselor education at UCF.

She spearheaded a new program called Project STAR, where UCF brings in its counseling students to provide free mental health services at ACE.

Project STAR stands for the “Systemic School Treatment and Response” project.

“These students are getting services that oftentimes come with a little bit of a heavy price tag,” Zeligman said. “So students are getting these services for free and so may be getting mental health support that has been needed for a while, but hasn’t been able to be available or accessible in this way.”

They are able to do this after UCF got a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

“Our hope with this project is that we’re obviously bringing students in immediately to fulfill some of those needs and provide counseling services within the schools,” Zeligman said. “And then our goal is that those students are now motivated to stay within these communities and continue that work post-graduation to continue to fill some of those gaps in needs.”

Fuller said the help is invaluable.

“It really is the difference between life and a successful life or death,” Fuller said.

It is Fuller’s job to coordinate the services at ACE.

ACE is a Community Partnership School where seven organizations have committed to working together for the kids, including Fuller’s group, Children’s Home Society, Boys & Girls Club of Central Florida, OCPS, Orange Blossom Family Health, Rosen Preschool, UCF and Valencia College.

“I actually have loved every moment,” said Cindy Luc.

Luc is one of UCF’s counseling students. She said serving at ACE has reinforced her decision to become a school counselor.

“It just caused this fire, this passion that I have inside of me,” Luc said. “It keeps lighting up just because of all the interactions that we can do. And I literally love it.”

While Parramore students get free services, UCF interns get tuition reimbursement and a stipend. Interns are expected to serve in a high-need school district for one year following graduation.

Project STAR kicked off at ACE this fall. So far, 18 UCF students have helped more than 60 Parramore students.

“It is extremely important, I think, for my students especially, but really for everyone to have access to quality mental health services,” Fuller said.

According to UCF, the grant will fund the program for the next five years.

Originally posted by Wesh 2 News

By Marlei Martinez