The University of Oregon will launch a new bachelor’s degree and certification program in children’s behavioral health to meet growing needs in state and regional schools. 

When it comes to school psychologists, Oregon has about one per 1,400 students, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. It recommends one per 500 students. 

The new Ballmer Institute will award bachelor’s degrees and certificates in children’s behavioral health, and will be based in Portland. It will make the University of Oregon the first university in the country to offer a bachelor’s degree program in children’s behavioral health.

The bachelor’s program is awaiting state approval of the curriculum, and the university expects new students will begin their classes in fall 2023. A shorter certification program could begin enrolling students sooner, according to Randy Kamphaus, who will lead the institute. Kamphaus was formerly the dean of the University of Oregon’s College of Education and a professor in the School of Psychology.

The non-degree certification program is for school counselors, teachers and other instructional staff who want to learn about the latest research and innovations in childhood behavioral health, or transition to serving in mental and behavioral health work within their schools, Kamphaus said.  

At a public meeting Tuesday, he briefed U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley on the Institute’s plans and its potential to graduate a pipeline of at least 200 new childhood behavioral and mental health specialists per year, with the first graduating class in 2027. 

At the briefing, Wyden said mental health among Oregon youth was an urgent problem.

“There are far too many kids living in mental health deserts,” he said. “This is particularly hard in rural Oregon.”

Merkley has been trying since 2019 to get his Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act passed by Congress but has not succeeded. The act would allot each state at least $1 million to staff buildings with mental health care professionals. 

At the briefing, both Merkley and Wyden said they hope that the Ballmer Institute will be the pipeline of professional staff that schools have been missing, and that it can be a regional and even national hub for such training. 

Despite the passage of the Student Investment Account in 2019, when the Oregon Legislature allocated $200 million to help schools pay for mental health staff, schools have continued to struggle with hiring, according to Merkley.

“The legislature is committed to having the resources available, but we have to have the people,” he said. 

Toya Fick, executive director of Stand for Children, a national nonprofit in Portland that works with schools to improve graduation rates and student outcomes, was also at the briefing. Fick said recent state investments in hiring staff to help with student mental and behavioral health haven’t been fully realized during the challenges of the last few years. 

 “We were excited because resources would flow into schools. Then, 10 months later, Covid happened,” she said.

She said Portland Public Schools currently has more than 200 job openings “about 100 of them are in mental health. Teachers, principals, they need support,” she said.

Kamphaus said he will begin to hire faculty for the bachelor’s and certification programs as soon as possible, including 15 clinical professor practitioners who will supervise students in the field. The first cohort of behavioral health specialists training through the Ballmer Institute will get hands-on experience working in Portland Public Schools and eventually at districts across the state. 

The Balmer Institute was funded by a $425 million donation from Connie and Steve Ballmer, a former Microsoft CEO. Connie Ballmer is a graduate of the University of Oregon and has served on the university’s board of trustees.

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Alex Baumhardt, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.