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Covid-Battered Schools Starved for Counselors to Aid Students

Aug. 18, 2022, 9:35 AM

A mental health crisis in schools exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic forced colleges to reexamine the pipeline to train the thousands of counselors and psychologists needed to fill the demand.

“In an ideal world, a school would have a school counselor, a school psychologist, and a school social worker,” said Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the director of policy and advocacy at the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).

“The demand for all school mental health services is off the charts,” she said. “But it was increasing before the pandemic. It’s not that once we move a little bit further beyond the pandemic and put that in the rear-view mirror that our kids’ mental health issues are going to go away.”

The isolation and educational disruption of the pandemic took a severe toll on school-age children, according to a 2021 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, American schools are short by nearly 62,000 school psychologists to meet the NASP recommended ratio of one per every 500 students.

One counselor for every 250 students is recommended by the American School Counselor Association. However, the national average for the 2020-2021 school year was one counselor for every 415 students.

The Biden Administration July 29 announced $300 million in awards intended to expand mental health services access in schools. That includes money for colleges to grow the pipeline of psychologists and counselors schools need to meet students’ needs.

Creating Opportunities

Only 240 universities offer graduate school psychology programs, according to the NASP. But schools like Howard University, Nevada State College, and University of Northern Iowa are working to make the training more accessible.

The pending federal funding can help these programs not only stay open but also make the case to expand, said Nicole Skaar, psychology and associate professor and coordinator of the school psychology program at the University of Northern Iowa.

“Listen, we’re not cheap. Graduate programs are expensive, and keeping those programs going, supporting those faculty, hiring faculty doing all those things, is vital. We cannot provide services to students if we don’t have highly qualified providers. But then the issue becomes sustainability,” she said.

The University of Northern Iowa already has a Grow Your Own school psychology program in partnership with the local Green Hills Area Education Agency. Grow Your Own recruits counselors with master’s degrees interested in pursuing additional education to become a school psychologist in underserved school districts.

The hope is that the new funds help expand the program, Skaar added.

Nevada State College, which offers a school-based mental health minor with any undergraduate degree, is also seeking approval for a graduate program in school psychology.

“The industry doesn’t really have a fully functioning pipeline in place to get people into the graduate programs, if they exist, but there’s also not enough graduate training programs to funnel them into, so of course there’s a shortage,” said Katherine Dockweiler, school psychologist and director of the college’s School-Based Mental Health Grant.

Diversifying the Pipeline

Attracting new school counselors and psychologists also means diversifying the pipeline to ensure communities are adequately reflected.

Washington, D.C., public schools also expressed interest in working with Howard University’s psychology school to start a Grow Your Own program, said Celeste Malone, NASP president and associate professor and coordinator of the school psychology program at Howard University. Howard University’s program is one of only two doctoral school psychology programs at an HBCU or minority-serving institution.

“That type of program would allow us to fund students as well as to provide stipends for the work that they’re doing for practicum when they’re still completing their coursework,” she said. “It’s expensive to live in DC and other surrounding areas and a graduate program, especially this one, is time-consuming and makes it so people typically have to stop working full-time. Students who want to be psychologists, which we desperately need, can not afford that. Bottom line.”

As of April, nearly 77% of NASP membership is White and roughly 14% identified as Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Another 14.4% of the membership are of Hispanic or Latino origin.

“The vast majority of our profession is White, cisgender female,” Strobach said. “We need more people with disabilities. We need more people of color. We need more school psychologists who identify as LGBTQ+. We have a diversity issue and it’s a very complex issue, but it’s another piece that we as professional groups can and will help with.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ayanna Alexander in Washington at aalexander@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew Childers at achilders@bloomberglaw.com