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School psychologists do a lot for students. Why do we have a shortage of them?

Just two weeks ago, after school psychologist Leigh Kokenes delivered a training on the signs of suicide, a student came to see her. The student confided in Kokenes about a previous suicide attempt. Familiar with the student’s family, Kokenes knew the next steps and how to approach the parents. And she knew how to follow up.

Kokenes, who was named National School Psychologist of the Year, shared this story ahead of National School Psychology Awareness Week, which began Monday. She used it to illustrate the importance of her profession, which offers a myriad of services at schools, including assistance with suicide prevention and school safety.

But she also used it to illustrate the need for the state to recruit more school psychologists amid a statewide shortage.

“If you happen to be in Tyrrell County and you’re thinking of killing yourself,” Kokenes said, “you have access to no mental health professional as far as a school psychologist. When you say things like that, people go, ‘Oooh. I really hadn’t thought about that.’ But that’s what we have to think about because we want to make sure that kids in those counties have access to comprehensive school psychological services.”

This week, hundreds of school psychologists are participating in events and tweeting with #SPAW2019. The week is not intended to be an advocacy opportunity, though. Instead, the top school psychology consultant for the Department of Public Instruction told the State Board of Education last week it is an opportunity for these professionals to consider their practice around a common theme — Find Your Focus

“Not so much to shine the light on themselves, but really try to demonstrate what we can do to support the greater good of the students that we serve across our state,” Lynn Makor, DPI’s school psychology consultant, said.

The theme, Makor told the State Board, is action-oriented — meant to empower school psychologists to step outside a standardized way of practice and find a way to meet the needs of individual students.

But the focus on efficacy for each student necessarily raises questions around reasonable expectations. The nationally recommended ratio of school psychologists to students tops out at 1:700. The ratio in North Carolina is 1:2,100, according to the North Carolina School Psychology Association. 

Kokenes said there is only one school psychologist in Bladen County, where there are 4,800 students. In fact, there are 22 counties which do not employ any school psychologists. Instead, they use outside contractors for those services. 

Makor and Kokenes posit several theories to explain North Carolina’s shortage. Both start by noting low pay for school psychologists in North Carolina, relative to their peers nationally and to psychologists in the private sector. Makor told the State Board that, nationwide, the median salary for a school psychologist is $63,000. In North Carolina, the salary ranges from $45,260 for first-year employees to $62,750 for those with 25 or more years of experience.

This is especially challenging because the licensure requires an advanced degree, so many school psychologists carry student loans.

That’s how there can be more than 1,200 school psychologists with active licenses from the State Board, Makor said, but only about 800 of them working in the public school system.

Kokenes said this is a trend that won’t limit itself to rural counties, either.

“It’s only a matter of time when those shortages come to Wake County,” she said. “And it has come to Wake County. It has come to [Charlotte-Mecklenburg]. It has come to Guilford County. [Everybody] needs to understand where our workforce is and the conditions they’re working under.”

Kokenes says the shortage can make school psychologists prone to burnout. Perhaps more pressing, it spreads them thin at a time when school psychologists are widely discussed as a frontline of mental health support for students.

While school psychologists are trained to address student mental health, they also lead social-emotional learning groups and consult with principals, teachers, grade-level teams, and parents about students with behavioral and learning challenges. 

Often, they spend large parts of the day assessing students for learning disabilities. In counties where there are only one or a few school psychologists, assessments can take up most of their time. 

“If you do get a school psychologist in [a county where there isn’t one], they’re going to be a testing machine,” Kokenes said. “They’ll be pretty much sequestered in a room with one student, testing. Because that’s a big part of our role, and it will always be a big part of our role to support students with disabilities. But the danger is that the kids don’t see us out doing the other things that we are trained to do because there are not enough of us to go around.”

Visibility by students may be as important as ever in light of a recent study. The North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force met this month to review the latest report on child deaths in North Carolina. The report shows that in 2018, suicide reached its highest rate ever in the state. Fifty-two North Carolina children ages 10-17 died by suicide last year.

Kokenes said that while suicide prevention is a high-profile and important resource school psychologists offer, others — like identifying learning differences — can be critical in helping students access education.

She recalled an elementary school student she worked with in the past. She remembers the young, black male as very smart. But she also remembers him coming to her with a lot of behavioral difficulties reported by teachers and staff. 

“He was being seen as the bad, black boy in the school,” she said. “But [they] weren’t seeing this for what it was. He so clearly had an autism spectrum disorder. But the other thing that he had, which nobody had ever heard about, was allergic rhinitis.”

The conditions would not have been addressed, particularly the latter one, without a school psychologist familiar with it who took the time to review the student’s file carefully, recognize the symptoms, and push for a diagnosis.

“There’s an educational impact for this medical diagnosis that he has,” she said.

The student was missing a lot of school during the winter. He sat in discomfort when he was in class. And misunderstanding of the underlying issues led to situations where the child was either acting out or perceived as acting out. With a diagnosis and educational services, this child is no longer the “bad” kid in school, she said. He’s just the smart kid.

Situations like this, Kokenes says, is why having school psychologists — and enough of them so they can focus on all of their student services — is vital.

“For a black male, that could have been really bad if he hadn’t been diagnosed and identified in elementary school,” she said. “We know how that could have gone if we weren’t able to get him services and help [put] him in a position to succeed.

“But who’s going to do that in those counties that don’t have a school psychologist? … There aren’t enough of us.”

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria was the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC from 2018 through October 2023.