Newark schools are putting an additional $6.5 million toward student mental health starting this year, thanks to two grants from the federal education department.

The funding announcement comes on the heels of new legislation requiring all New Jersey public schools to teach about mental health in K-12.

Newark schools have been awarded a five-year, $4.6 million grant for its Project Prevent Newark, which aims to create culturally responsive learning environments, train school staff to serve children affected by trauma and violence, and increase student mental health counseling services.

A separate $1.9 million grant will fund the Supportive School Newark project. The goals: developing a pipeline of school psychologists for high needs schools and otherwise helping address the mental health needs of students who have experienced trauma. 

The superintendent and board members have publicly spoken out about prioritizing student mental health needs and trauma-informed care, but the grants mark a significant step toward tackling the issue. “We know that our students are impacted in profound ways,” Superintendent Roger León said at an August board meeting. “We know today that mental health is real.”

Mental health services have been a concern at school board meetings, following an unspecified 2018 mental health “incident”  at Science Park High School, where students have created a mental health club.

Responding to news of the Supportive School grant, León said in a press release, “This grant will enable the district to continue the process of creating trauma informed schools that are truly needed.”

That program is made possible through a partnership between the Newark Board of Education and Fairleigh Dickinson University-Metro Campus. As part of this initiative, the district will establish six K-8 demonstration schools that will serve as models for trauma-informed care for the rest of the district. Graduate students from the university will complete a practicum and internship requirements in one of the demonstration schools, serving approximately 4,300 students. 

Shayvonne Anderson, a school board member and Newark parent, said in a previous interview with Chalkbeat that mental health isn’t often taken into account when it comes to student well-being in Newark, but it should be.

“There’s always something underlying, especially in Newark. I grew up here, so I know what the challenges are that kids face here in this city,” Anderson said. “Social and emotional learning needs to be a part of the curriculum, and people need to be trained in trauma.”