Project PEARLS receives $500,000 grant

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration awarded three UI professors a $500,000 grant to launch a mental health awareness training.


Matt Sindt

The Old Capitol Building is seen on March 31, 2023. Storms rolled through the area and a tornado caused damage in parts of Coralville.

Natalie Miller, News Reporter

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration awarded three University of Iowa professors a $500,000 grant to create mental health training for K-12 students and staff in Iowa City.

The professors’ project, Project PEARLS, stands for Prepare, Engage, Assess, Respond, Link, and Sustain, which are the objectives of the project. The project aims to better mental health resources and create more awareness training throughout the Iowa City community.

The three professors, Gerta Bardhoshi, an associate professor of counselor education in the College of Education; Ebonee Johnson, assistant professor of community health and behavioral health in the College of Public Health; and Kari Vogelgesang, clinical associate professor in the College of Education, are running the project.

Bardhoshi said Project PEARLS would be a curriculum targeted toward education stakeholders in the community.

“We’re calling them education stakeholders, for anybody that wants to be a partner in mental health toward students, so that includes teachers, school counselors, and paraeducators,” Bardhoshi said. “It includes certainly all the staff in the school building, but also perhaps more importantly parents, as well as police officers.”

The professors then applied for a grant through the UI Scanlan Center for School Mental Health and were awarded $20,000 to begin their work.

Johnson said the Biden Administration released more funds for mental health support through the American Rescue Plan in 2021, and as a top-scoring grant, Project PEARLS was able to receive money. The group initially applied for federal funding in 2020 but did not receive it.

“The beautiful thing was, even though we didn’t get funded the first time, we still started the work so that when our funding agency reached out to us, we were ready to go,” she said.

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Awareness and education about mental health is important to all three professors. Vogelgesang realized the need for mental health education during her teaching career in the early 2000s.

“We need to be also training teachers how to attend to social, emotional, and behavioral mental health needs of our students and our families as well,” Vogelgesang said.

Vogelgesang said the pandemic was what exposed all the mental health education needs in schools.

“The pandemic exacerbated, but there were issues and cracks in the foundation way before the pandemic started,” Vogelgesang said.

Bardhoshi said all three professors have or had children in the Iowa City Community School District and all wanted to work toward mental health education.

“We just felt our areas of expertise and also our familiarity with the school district put us in a good position to start hopefully making a small impact towards this great goal, which is to improve the mental health of our students,” Bardhoshi said.

One example of furthering mental health efforts came through Johnson talking at a high school day at the UI College of Public Health in the summer of 2022 and recruiting 10 high school students to form a youth stakeholder group. The group met every Saturday throughout the fall and continues to meet once a week.

“They just unloaded all the things that were going on in their schools … they really shake the curriculum, and we are paying them a salary to provide their feedback,” Johnson said.

The youth stakeholder group shared with the professors what they needed from their teachers. They created a 3-R Framework, which stands for resources, reassurance, and role models.

“We kind of used that framework and branched out, like, how do we build a training around those three things that you need,” Johnson said.

The curriculum is an estimated 15 hours and includes both in-person and online deliveries through modules, discussions, and reflections.

Moving forward, Bardhoshi said the pilot for Project PEARLS will start this month for the Iowa City Community School District’s employees and leaders.

Additionally, the professors have gone to a handful of other schools to give them a teaser of the curriculum and have also hosted a conference for educators across the state.