Monday, February 27, 2023

The $500,000 Substance, Abuse, and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grant will fund Project PEARLS across 9 Iowa City Community Schools

Ebonee Johnson and Gerta Bardhoshi
Ebonee Johnson and Gerta Bardhoshi

Gerta Bardhoshi, College of Education associate professor of counselor education, Ebonee Johnson, College of Public Health assistant professor of community and behavioral health, and Kari Vogelgesang, College of Education clinical associate professor, were awarded a grant to launch Project PEARLS (Prepare, Engage, Assess, Respond, Link, Sustain), a new mental health awareness training curriculum in the local Iowa City community.

“There is a huge mental health awareness training need for community stakeholders,” says Johnson. “Through Project PEARLS, we will create that space to build self-efficacy and confidence in not only broaching youth mental health issues but also in making the appropriate referrals.”

Project PEARLS will focus on nine schools - six elementary schools, one junior high school, and two high schools - with high rates of racial/ethnic minority students and free and reduced lunch recipients. More than 700 school personnel, one-third of all Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) employees, are identified to receive training over four years. 

“Anyone that is working in a school building – whether you are a teacher, school counselor, bus driver, cafeteria worker, or custodian – will be able to receive this training,” says Bardhoshi, one of the project’s co-directors.

At the forefront of school mental health efforts, ICCSD implements a multi-tiered system of support emphasizing the importance of evidence-based universal practices and interventions to engage students and families. Additionally, ICCSD continues to provide training, such as Youth Mental Health First Aid, to its educators.  The launch of Project PEARLS builds upon these efforts and leverages the sustained partnership between ICCSD and the College of Education.

The project team took the best evidence-based practices and combined them into one curriculum which includes:

  • Mental health literacy and recognition (i.e., What do depression and anxiety look like? What is the pipeline of care from prevention to referrals?)
  • Intervention and crisis de-escalation best practices (i.e., How do I broach the conversation? How do I actively listen? What are the right questions?)
  • Taking care of yourself (i.e., How do I take care of myself and prioritize my own wellness?)
  • Opportunities to practice and reflect

Kari Vogelgesang
Kari Vogelgesang

As part of the training, school staff will complete 12 modules via a combination of in-person and digital learning experiences. One licensure renewal credit will be provided free of cost to participating educators.

The initial phase will roll out to K-12 educators and school staff in April of 2023, with key personnel first receiving a pilot training to better refine the curriculum given emerging district needs.

Phase two will include parents, and phase three will integrate key community stakeholders including police departments, mental health organizations, and after-school/daycare providers.

Since each group uniquely interacts with students and needs different skills to recognize and intervene, each training will be customized.

“We want to convince people that everyone is a stakeholder in mental health. We all have a role to play to improve the health and well-being of K-12 students,” says Johnson. “Oftentimes, we just need to be the bridge to other forms of support. This training will help each person figure out how they can be a connector in their role.”

The team also credits College of Education Dean Dan Clay for helping remove barriers that often deter parent/caregiver participation. The College of Education provided supplemental funding to ensure that transportation, meals, and childcare were built into the parent/caregiver training.

While Project PEARLS is localized to Iowa City, the Scanlan Center for School Mental Health recently piloted “Imagine Iowa,” the educator-specific part of the curriculum at the 2022 Iowa BEST Summit. Co-project director Vogelgesang has been instrumental in syncing this training with the center’s professional development offerings.

“We want every Iowa K-12 educator to have access to this training,” Bardhoshi says. “Through the Scanlan Center for School Mental Health, we can scale up and bring this next-level mental health awareness training to any school or district that wants it.”

Imagine Iowa is now recruiting schools and districts for summer and fall 2023. If you are interested in hosting an Imagine Iowa training, learn more at  

All three project leads serve in key roles at the Scanlan Center for School Mental Health. Bardhoshi is the center’s director of research and training. Vogelgesang serves as the director of professional development. Johnson is an affiliated faculty member.