Lawton Public Schools is one of three school districts that will be part of the Oklahoma AWARE South grant, the Oklahoma State Department of Education confirmed Wednesday.

District officials said the funds would be used to strengthen its programs for students and training for staff.

Lawton Public Schools was notified in mid-September that it would be part of Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education), funding specifically designed to strengthen school-based mental health training and support for students, educators, families and community partners. The grant was awarded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said Wednesday the $9 million is intended to expand support for rural school districts striving to met the mental health needs of its students, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. LPS officials said the funds will be provided to the three school districts over a five-year period, beginning this year.

Approximately 15,000 students in Lawton, Davis and Sulphur public schools are the designated participants in Oklahoma AWARE South, the state’s third grant and the largest of its kind awarded to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, Hofmeister said. The Oklahoma AWARE South grant will parallel the work of two other five-year grants: Project AWARE East, serving Ada, Atoka and Checotah public schools; and Project AWARE West, serving Elk City, Weatherford and Woodward public schools.

Oklahoma is the only state in the nation with three AWARE grant projects running concurrently.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the ratio of population to mental health providers in the Project AWARE South region is 629:1, compared to the state average of 201:1.

The objectives of the grant include providing a minimum of 15 hours of mental health training per year for school personnel, a reduction in discipline referrals, suspensions and expulsions, universal mental health screenings and medical referrals for students.

Diana Landoll, director of grants at Lawton Public Schools, said in September the district will customize its existing program though professional development, professional book studies, curriculum programs, and student and community mental health awareness events. The district plans to strengthen mental health services, training and education by expanding partnerships among state education agencies, mental health agencies and local education agencies.

“We can provide additional support in regards to personnel, resources, tools and professional development opportunities,” LPS Superintendent Kevin Hime said. “This will just enhance our services for mental and behavioral health. Social emotional learning and support is vital for a successful educational environment and we are thankful that we have the means to expand our capacity at Lawton Public Schools.”

The latest Project AWARE grant comes after the department of education awarded $35.7 million in grants to 181 school districts to hire additional school counselors and school-based mental health professionals through the Oklahoma School Counselor Corps. Hime said in early July LPS would be seeking licensed social workers to supplement the staff of hard-to-find school counselors. He said grant funds would provide Lawton $124,000 a year over three years, which the district would match to provide at least four social workers.

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