Kean University receives $4.5M grant for mental health program in Belleville schools

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BELLEVILLE / UNION, NJ — A $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education will fund a Kean University program designed to increase diversity among school psychologists while proactively addressing student mental health in the Belleville School District.

The Kean Department of Advanced Psychology, which offers graduate degrees in school and clinical psychology, is placing students in internships and externships to help develop the BeWell Mental Health Initiative in Belleville’s schools.

“As New Jersey’s urban research university, Kean is dedicated to addressing the needs of urban communities, including the mental health needs of children and individuals in our public schools,” Kean President Lamont O. Repollet said. “School psychologists play a crucial role, especially now when our communities continue to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. This innovative partnership allows us to assist students, teachers and families in Belleville while increasing the ranks of diverse school psychologists throughout New Jersey.”

The BeWell Mental Health Initiative is funded by a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

Kean assistant professor Aaron A. Gubi, director of Kean Psychological Services, worked with Kean’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and applied for the grant. 

He said the project fits the university’s mission of urban research, especially by recruiting diverse school psychology students. Ultimately, the goal includes placing Kean graduate students in jobs in Belleville and other high-need school districts.

“I thought our university and program fit perfectly with this grant,” Gubi said, “working both to improve a local urban school district and strengthening the pipeline of school psychology professionals in an urban setting.”

The advanced psychology department began working with Belleville a few years ago, placing graduate students to help during the pandemic-related transition to remote learning. The new initiative expands the partnership. Kean grad students will work with Belleville on a multi-tiered system of mental health supports, including activities such as schoolwide social-emotional learning; classroom sessions on bullying and other topics; small-group “lunch bunch” discussions; and other preventive measures. Kean students will also work with Belleville staff to identify students or families who may need further services.

Silvia C. Pastor, supervisor of equity, diversity and inclusion in the Belleville schools, said that, as a Latina, she saw the need to increase the availability of mental health providers from different cultures.

“It was really important not just to me, but to my community. We needed to do better and have more mental health clinicians who understand our families’ backgrounds,” she said. “This also creates opportunities for young mental health practitioners.”

Kean associate professor Jennifer Block-Lerner, director of the Department of Advanced Studies in Psychology, said the grant is “a fantastic reflection of the intersection of science and practice as well as the value of university/community partnerships.”

The grad students working in Belleville now, who will continue through the grant, see their work making a difference.

Blanca Garcia is in her second year in the combined school and clinical psychology Psy.D. program. She commutes from Queens twice a week to work with elementary and middle school children in Belleville’s Diversity, Health and Wellness drop-in center. She helps children with issues such as transitioning to a new grade or to the district; bullying; and anger and crisis management. The daughter of Salvadoran immigrants, Garcia is fluent in Spanish. 

“I have students who were able to express themselves in Spanish, and I saw how helpful it was for them,” she said. “As a minority student, I know what it is like to go to a school without representation; (representation) matters and makes a difference.”

Gabrielle Denicola, of Oradell, a fourth-year doctoral student at Kean, counsels Belleville High School students.

“I think this mental health support greatly helps our students by providing a safe space for kids,” she said. “Students know they can speak to a counselor about any concern and feel empowered to express themselves in a supportive, inclusive environment.”

The grant team also includes, from the Kean Department of Advanced Studies in Psychology, professor Adrienne Garro, assistant professor Aditi Vijay and associate professor Keri Giordano.

Photos Courtesy of Kean University