King Picked to Lead Project AWARE

Last month, Haywood County Schools (HCS) was one of three counties in the state of Tennessee to be awarded the Project AWARE Grant.  AWARE stands for Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education.  Guiding the implementation of the AWARE grant in HCS is Twyla King.  Twyla graduated from Middle Tennessee State University with a degree in Social Work.  She completed her Masters in Social Work at Union University in 2010.  Her professional career has also been spent in the mental health and social work field.

“I worked as a therapist and a mobile crisis counselor at Professional Care Services which is who HCS partners with now,” she said.  “I’ve been in HCS for four years.  I started as a school counselor at HES.  This year, I transitioned to a school social worker.”

While some duties of a school counselor and social worker overlap, Twyla explained the differences in the positions.

“A school counselor’s role is based in the classroom and teaching lessons in character education.  As a social worker, I worked with the students but more on a behavioral, attendance, and academic level.  We would do individual goal setting and goal setting with teachers,” she explained.

Now, as the leader of the AWARE grant in HCS, Twyla can focus on the goals of the program.  Project Aware seeks to establish six guiding principles for implementation:

  1. Build state and local collaborative infrastructure involving key stakeholders to plan and implement school-community mental health partnerships programs benefitting school-age youth.
  2. Increase mental health awareness to reduce stigma and promote help-seeking for mental health issues.
  3. Promote positive school climate through the implementation of school policies, evidence-based, universal prevention programs and indicated behavioral interventions to build socio-personal competencies, promote wellness and resilience, and reduce behavioral incidents in schools.
  4. Increase school capacity to identify and respond to youth mental health needs through use of early identification and screening processes and risk assessment protocols.
  5. Expand the district and community continuum of school-based mental health services to improve mental health access and address the needs of children and youth with SED (Serious Emotional Disturbance), SMI (Serious Mental Illness), and students at an elevated risk for depression and related mental health disorders.
  6. Develop infrastructure to sustain and expand school mental health services beyond the duration of the grant.

As students in Haywood County and beyond are adjusting to returning to school after two abbreviated years during COVID-19, social and emotional issues will arise from the re-acclimation to a school environment.  A substantial emphasis of Project AWARE is to make the connections between students and social workers more efficient while at the same time working to remove the stigma of mental health assistance.

“A big part of the program is about educating youth and the community about mental health and removing the stigma that’s attached to it,” Twyla said.  

She also touted the ease of the referral process.

“Students can self-refer.  Parents can refer students.  Teachers can refer students.  We’ll have an online referral form that’s unique for each school.  Some districts even have a QR code that a student or teacher can simply scan that will take them to the referral page.  That’s especially important for students who are wanting help,” Twyla said.  

Haywood County Schools currently offers a social worker on each campus, but the AWARE Grant will now allow the high school to have an additional social worker on its campus.  Twyla understands the importance of having that support at every school in the district.

“Having a social worker in each school is extremely important.  Because of the holistic approach, we can see what is affecting a student’s grades or attendance or behavior.  It allows us to see the whole child and everything that could be affecting learning,” she explained.

Educating children in public education requires more than testing and textbooks; it’s a holistic, supportive approach that helps to assist students in all aspects of their lives.  The Project AWARE Grant is helping Haywood County Schools do just that.