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Loyola education professor, Harford County Public Schools awarded $1.1 million grant for collaborative project focused on school counselors

| By Nick Alexopulos

Jennifer Watkinson, Ph.D., assistant professor in the school counseling program at Loyola University Maryland’s School of Education, in partnership with Harford County (Md.) Public Schools, has received a collaborative federal grant of more than $1.1 million to provide additional recourses to advance the professional development of elementary school counselors within the county.

Watkinson and Harford County are among the first in the nation to secure a grant for this specific purpose. The grant is one of 35 awarded this year by the U.S. Department of Education’s Elementary & Secondary School Counseling Programs grant program. School systems are the primary grant recipients, and more than 500 applied. Watkinson and Harford County’s project, “Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Programs,” will be implemented over the course of three years.

As the primary grant recipient and manager, Harford County will expand and improve its existing elementary school counseling programs to better serve the mental health needs of students in an effort to increase academic achievement. Watkinson will analyze the impact of those reforms by collecting data, creating protocols, interpreting the data, and contributing to written reports. The research opportunity linked to new work supported by the grant complements Watkinson’s ongoing research agenda, where she looks to build capacity within school systems and school counselors to create change.

“What I love about this opportunity is that it really embodies the idea of engaged scholarship, which is something that my field is calling for counselor educators to do,” Watkinson said. “We’re trying to transform the profession so that school counselors are able to utilize advocacy and leadership to support the diverse needs of their students.”

Professional counseling organizations have called for more engaged scholarship for years, but little progress has been made.

Watkinson and Harford County elementary schools are one of few exceptions; they had been working together on counselor professional development for more than two years before they applied for and won the grant. During that time Watkinson created professional learning communities – small groups of counselors – focused on building skills and educating counselors on how to use evidence to guide their decision making. In addition, she worked with county elementary school counselors to draft a vision statement to ground practice. Financial support from the grant allows her to continue facilitating the professional learning communities and meet with top school administrators and counselors more regularly.

Watkinson says the depth of her research will increase significantly now that she will be more entrenched in the school system.

“The door is open for me to create systemic changes needed to support elementary school students so they can achieve, particularly those who are not able to do so because of systemic barriers,” said Watkinson.

With the grant funds, Watkinson will also be able to hire a doctoral student from Loyola’s psychology graduate program to help administer the clinical supervision component of the project.

Watkinson was a school counselor in Harford County for 14 years before joining the faculty at Loyola. She received her Ph.D. in counselor education with a specialization in school counseling from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2000, and she received her B.A. from Loyola in 1991.

More information about the U.S. Department of Education’s grant award program is available here.

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