Jim Persinger tells the story with a little frustration.
A school administrator saw school psychologists — his field — as interchangeable with counselors and social workers.
“I said, ‘Well, let’s look at it this way. If you were to find out that you had cancer, you could see ... a podiatrist or an oncologist. It really doesn’t matter — they’re all health professionals,’” said Persinger, the director of the school psychology program at Emporia State University.
Counselors work with students’ academic and social development. Social workers assist students navigating school resources and with problems at home.
But school psychologists figure out which students need special education, or identify learning difficulties early enough to help kids — and their schools — avoid costly special education.
Increasingly, Kansas looks to school psychologists to cure its education woes — banking that their expertise can help students meet ambitious education goals and tackle a growing student mental health crisis.
Yet decades of neglect have left the field thin and exhausted. Psychologists have been leaving the job even as fewer have signed up. That’s left the state with a daunting shortage.
While the remaining school psychologists say they’re still capable of doing the special education evaluations legally required for the state, they have less time for each student. The shortage also leaves less time for early intervention, which the field has been turning to since the start of the century.
Advocates argue early intervention can have a huge impact on student achievement — and a district’s budget — by helping students before their issues snowball. It can even spare students from needing special education later.
“You essentially will cure,” Persinger said, “what we used to call a disability.”
But the increased caseload that comes with the shortage means it can take months — in extreme cases, years — for students to get the early help that can make such a difference.
The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio between 500 and 700 students per school psychologist. The ratio in K-12 public schools in Kansas is more than 1,200 to one.
The shortage is worse in rural Kansas.
Along with rural districts often having fewer school psychologists per student, those psychologists often have students spread across a much larger area. As the shortage worsens, psychologists spend less time with students and more time driving from one school building to the next. Sometimes that’s a drive from one end of the county to the other.
“I put about 35,000 miles on my car over this last year and a half,” said Matt Workman, a school psychologist with the Reno County Education Cooperative.
Last year, the co-op lost half of its six psychologists to retirement and other jobs. It did eventually hire two more psychologists, but with more eligible for retirement, they’re constantly on the hunt for replacements.
The remaining psychologists across the state feel the strain of a growing workload.
“I love my job. I love helping kids,” said Julie Watkins, school psychologist for the Butler County Special Education Interlocal. “But if ... there’s too much to do and I’m writing reports until midnight, that’s really no way to live.”
In his final State of the State speech in January, then-Gov. Sam Brownback called for the state to hire more school psychologists to get results from the millions the Kansas Supreme Court is pushing lawmakers to spend on public schools. Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson wants more school psychologists for the social-emotional learning he’s been championing.
Brownback’s successor, Gov. Jeff Colyer, supports the push. But he’s been light on details.
In Derby, the shortage forces psychologists to work extra hours. The district’s compliance coordinator, Jaime Johnston, doubles as a school psychologist. That means squeezing in evening hours for her usual day job.
“I get my son to bed and open up the computer and usually put in about two hours a night of paperwork that I would normally do during my workday,” Johnston said.
Those extra hours feed burnout, leading some to quit or move to other states, according to a survey by the Kansas Association of School Psychologists. The report also cites “a challenging educational climate” in Kansas that is causing psychologists to look for jobs elsewhere.
Then there are retirements. In 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. It required schools to expand special education and created demand for thousands of school psychologists.
As those psychologists retire, they leave a wave of open positions. But there aren’t enough students being trained to replace them.
Lena Kisner, the director of the Reno County Education Cooperative, said she reached out to multiple universities across the state looking for soon-to-be graduates.
“Most of the times the response was, ‘All of our students already have jobs lined up. Our students had jobs lined up a year ahead of time,’” she said.
Kisner visited Nebraska universities and heard the same story. The shortage is everywhere.
School psychologists in Kansas need an education specialist degree, which takes roughly twice the time to earn as a traditional master's degree. It’s usually one of the highest paid jobs in a school district, often well above teacher salaries. But one of the biggest problems recruiting students is they don’t know the career exists.
“The vast majority of us have never interacted with a school psychologist when we were in public schools,” said Jody Fiorini, the head of Wichita State University’s school psychology program. “I remember walking by the school psychologist office and said 'Oh, I wonder what they do?’”
Fiorini said the number of students in her program has doubled, though that’s still not enough to solve the Kansas shortage. And she’s running into another problem other school psychology programs across the state are facing: not enough professors to train all the new school psychologists Kansas needs.
“I’m lucky if I get four applicants,” she said, “because they’re just so sought after.”
Stephan Bisaha reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter@SteveBisaha. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.