University of Northern Colorado alumnus Marko Corona, Ed.S. ‘22, considers his job as a school psychologist as one that opens the door to opportunities for children. Every day at Irish Elementary School in Fort Collins, his job is to meet with two to 15 students who may have something hindering their ability to access their education — and begin investigating.
“We’ll evaluate academic progress as well as any other confounding factors which may be contributing to a student’s academic challenges,” Corona said. “Usually it starts with a teacher who comes up to me and says they’re concerned about their student if they notice a difference in their demeanor or their behavior, so that’s when I’ll check in on the student and see if there was a life event that happened that they aren’t sure how to cope with or whatever challenges they are facing.”
While discovering the issue and working to solve it can be difficult at times, Corona said there’s a bigger overarching problem in the industry – there needs to be more people who can open the same door he does, i.e. more school psychologists working in Colorado schools.
The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of one school psychologist to every 500 students. During the 2021-22 school year, Colorado’s ratio was 1-to-942, nearly double the recommendation.
“Right now, we’re seeing an increase in the number of students that have some significant social and emotional needs, which means our service time directly to students as school psychologists has also increased,” said Tammy Branan, assistant director of special education for the Greeley-Evans School District 6.
Branan hires school psychologists and interns for the district, so she sees first-hand the need for more people to choose the profession. There are still open positions in the district that haven’t been filled, which not only affects the students but also their teachers.
“The consultation we provide as school psychologists to teachers is so important, and the bigger the need, the more that consultation time is not as robust as you would like it to be because we’re trying to cover multiple different schools or multiple assignments. It can lead to burnout,” Branan said.
Branan’s colleague and Greeley-Evans School District 6 Director of Special Education Tom Gribble says the need for school psychologists is unique. Unlike the national need for teachers in general, those who graduate with a degree in psychology have more than just one job option to pursue.
“School psychology skills can transfer,” Gribble said. “If you pursue teaching, the main job is a classroom teacher, but if you pursue psychology, you can go into departments of human services, become a therapist or become a school psychologist. So, we’re not just competing with other school districts when it comes to hiring a school psychologist, we’re also competing with private practices.”
To combat the shortages, Gribble says it’s essential to find creative ways to bring awareness of the profession to college students and have them graduate with the intent of becoming a school psychologist.
"Two school psychologists that I work with right now are technically retired but have continued to work with us because the positions are hard to fill. But they’re not going to stay forever and when you look down the line, there’s no one to replace them," said Megan Wolf.
"We need to look at incentives or reduce some of the financial burden and create partnerships,” Gribble said. “We not only need to enhance the pipeline but also how might we be able to recruit and to retain the existing staff.”
Two faculty members from UNC’s College of Education and Behavioral Sciences had the same idea as Gribble. They are actively working to prepare more future school psychologists who will be able to provide mental health services across northern Colorado. School of Psychology Professor David Hulac, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor Jacqueline R. Anderson, Ph.D., applied for and received more than $5 million from two U.S. Department of Education grants to create new stipends for students to join the School Psychology Graduate Training program.
“These grants are recognition that there is an issue,” Hulac said. “Teen suicide risk, depression and anxiety rates are at a high, to the point that Children’s Hospital Colorado has declared youth mental health a crisis. So, we need to help and support mental health and the only way to do that is to get more school psychologists into classrooms.”
The grant program will last five years and will train graduate students to become experts in providing evidence-based, trauma-informed and culturally affirming mental health services in Colorado schools. Those interested will have two-thirds of their tuition covered as long as they’re interested in working in one of three settings for three years; Greeley-Evans District 6, a Spanish-speaking community or in a rural community.
“We’re filling in the widest gaps first and addressing the need for more Spanish-speaking school psychologists and ones that are willing to work in smaller communities,” Hulac said. “So, this is an exciting program for students with a passion for psychology to take advantage of affordable education and it’s exciting for future preschool through 12th grade students who need additional mental health support.”
The School Psychology Graduate Training program with the added stipends is available for eight students and takes three years to complete with 72 required credits. Graduates receive an Educational Specialist degree in School Psychology.
One of the goals of the Graduate Training program is to increase the number of school psychologists who can provide bilingual support. Corona, the one who opens the door for mental health support at Irish Elementary, falls into this category. His school provides instruction in both Spanish and English, so being bilingual feels like a necessity.
“Prior to me being in this position, my school has had a revolving door of school psychologists because very few school psychologists are bilingual,” Corona said. “This is a dual-language school and one of our roles is to build relationships with the parents, and that was clearly something that was lacking. So, I think having that bilingualism really serves me well in this school.”
Growing up with parents who immigrated from Mexico, Corona said it was important for him to provide representation in his school district, and he’s seen the benefits of it in just his second year in the role.
“When we need to evaluate a student, sometimes we have to ask uncomfortable questions and I think the fact that I am the same color as these kids, and their parents are just like my parents, that helps create a relationship much deeper and quicker,” Corona said.
Overall, Corona said being able to talk to his students and their parents in English and Spanish creates a safe environment, which is crucial to properly evaluating and assisting students who are dealing with mental health issues. This is why Corona said he’s grateful his alma mater is actively recruiting more linguistically and culturally diverse students to pursue a school psychologist career.
RELATED: Grad Students Researching Methods to Strengthen Mental Health Training in Rural Schools
“Despite it being stressful, the job is very rewarding,” Corona said. “I’ve been working with a student for two years who is now in fourth grade. When he was in second grade, he was fighting all the time and getting into trouble. In third grade, he did not completely stop, but he was much more remorseful when he was acting out. So, even though he’s still a little impulsive, which might get him into trouble, I like that he’s now able to process the event and look at it with a different perspective.”
Another goal of the Graduate Training Program is to increase the number of school psychologists in rural areas. Normally in rural Colorado schools, a Board of Cooperative Education Services, or BOCES, provides school psychologists to multiple school districts since rural schools don’t typically have as many resources as metropolitan schools.
UNC Alumna Megan Wolf, Ed.S. ‘13, works for the Northeast Colorado BOCES and serves as a school psychologist for four districts around the Sterling, Colorado, area. She says providing care to multiple schools at one time can be stressful.
“This year it started to feel more manageable because we hired a retired school psychologist to work part-time, but it comes and goes,” Wolf said. “We’re starting to get a really big influx of parent requests for initial evaluations of their children, which is strange. We’re trying to figure out what the source is and so it’s starting to feel very unmanageable.”
A big misconception Wolf faces in the industry is that she only works with students in special education, but in rural settings she provides support for much more than that.
“After returning to an in-person setting after COVID-19, we had four students die by suicide, not all in the same district, but I think it really kind of opened up principals’ and administration leaders’ eyes to recognize and allow the school psychologists to respond to crises and that they actually are helpful,” Wolf said.
While it is beneficial for Wolf to support students beyond special education, it does create more work for her. This year her BOCES hired an online school psychologist to help. They come in person once a week to do evaluations and then work remotely for the remainder of the time.
“A lot of rural schools are moving to this because we can’t function unless we have somebody working full-time online, which is terrible because you don’t create those relationships with the kids and you don’t create the relationships with the staff,” Wolf said. “The colleague that was hired is a very qualified school psychologist, it’s just that she can’t participate the same way the rest of us can. She can’t grab a student in the hallway and have a quick conversation.”
Wolf is hopeful that UNC’s effort to recruit not only more school psychologists, but specifically ones who will work in rural areas will help make the workload on her staff, and every other school district’s staff, more manageable.
“Two school psychologists that I work with right now are technically retired but have continued to work with us because the positions are hard to fill,” Wolf said. “But they’re not going to stay forever and when you look down the line, there’s no one to replace them.”
So far, five UNC graduate students have joined the School Psychology Graduate Training program, which launched in the fall 2023 semester. Once they graduate, they’ll be the latest to lead the way to special education and mental health support in the Colorado areas that need it the most.
“School Psychologists have a unique skill set: They are trained as mental health providers, but also understand academic problems and are the premiere experts in educational measurement,” said Hulac. “Developing this skill set is not easy and requires intensive and focused work. With these grants, we hope to expand this training to graduate students who may not otherwise be afforded the opportunity, and then allow them to work in areas of Colorado that lack sufficient numbers of school psychologists.” (KB/Newswise)