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Local & State

North Carolina has a shortage of public school psychologists
Lack of funding and candidates hamper efforts
Published Monday, November 23, 2020 10:00 am
by Sergio Osnaya-Prieto | UNC Media Lab


Bladen County, nestled between Fayetteville and Wilmington, has 13 public schools, more than 4,000 students — and one school psychologist.

Holly Meggs has worked in the state’s public education system for more than 20 years, and has been Bladen County’s sole school psychologist for nearly five years.

Bladen County, she said, doesn’t have a movie theater, or a bowling alley, which is partially why getting a second school psychologist for the county might be difficult. Still, she said, she does her best to provide the psychological services she was trained for.

“My personal belief is that God put me where I needed to be, when I needed to be, whether I’m satisfied or not,” she said. “There are some days I’m not satisfied. But then, there are other days I’m very satisfied.”

School psychologists offer a variety of services aimed at improving students’ mental health and their success inside and outside of the classroom. These include counseling, suicide prevention initiatives, and working with teachers and staff to improve students’ learning environments.

However, schools across the state are experiencing a shortage of school psychologists due to lack of funding and candidates for vacant positions, according to an April report by the state’s Department of Public Instruction. This has limited the services that schools can provide to students — an issue worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on instruction methods.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of one school psychologist per every 500 students. According to Lynn Makor, DPI’s school psychology consultant, North Carolina’s ratio is one school psychologist per 1,800 students.

The ratio also changes significantly between districts, according to the DPI report, with some districts reaching a ratio of 1-to-4,500. 42 school districts reported having only one, none or only part-time school psychologists.

As the only school psychologist in her county, Meggs has no such thing as a “regular day.” Any given day can involve meetings with a student services team, helping teachers’ interpret psychological tests or providing crisis counseling.

But most of her days, she said, are spent on evaluations for students with learning disabilities.

Many school psychologists across the state work within districts’ or schools’ Exceptional Children programs — devoted to the evaluation and development of students with disabilities. Makor said a school psychologist’s license is required for many of the evaluation services needed to determine if a student is eligible to join a special education program.

“It’s just that the numbers, as they grow, make it very difficult for the school psychologist to be as accessible as they really should be to be able to support other pieces of the system,” Makor said. “So that’s the frustration that our field has, and continues to have as a result of our numbers.”

Meggs said a single evaluation can take about three hours, without counting the time it requires to score and write up a report with the results. She said the district hired contractors to assist with testing, which has allowed the district to conduct 50 evaluations since August.

According to the DPI report, Meggs’ case is common across the state. In a survey of school psychologists, a majority of responses were related to a disproportionate amount of time spent on student evaluations, writing reports and attending meetings.

“And if I was able to do more, if I only had a couple of schools, I would be doing more with the student services teams, working with interventions and progress monitoring of students,” Meggs said. “Having this bigger number, it’s getting all of the data you can together, it’s doing evaluations, it’s talking to other agencies or other schools to get everything you can to make sure our children’s needs are met. And yes, it ends up being more (exceptional children).”

School districts in larger districts, however, may have a different experience.

Ina Nyko splits her time as school psychologist at Enloe High School and Broughton High School near downtown Raleigh.

“In Wake County, we really do have the resources,” she said. “So I do tests, of course, but I have so much more time to do other activities, I run groups that meet with students individually, I work with parents.”

For example, she said, she could spend an hour and a half preparing for a 20-minute meeting with a student, developing strategies to address the student’s needs and reaching out to the student’s parents.

“When we’re given that resource of time, I’m able to build a relationship with students, I’m able to develop activities to develop their skills so that they can be successful in a school setting,” she said.

Every school in Wake County has a part-time school psychologist who splits his or her time between two schools, like Nyko, according to information reported by the district for the DPI’s report.

Several districts reported far more difficulties.

For example, in the report, financial officers in Lee County Schools explaining how the district allocates school psychologists to schools said: “We have been short for many years. Since we are never really fully staffed in that area, we are limited in the services we can provide. Our psychologists are not able to intervene with regular education and (multi-tiered system of supports) like we would prefer.”

Likewise, Cabarrus County’s financial officers said: “We have a really difficult time trying to fill open psychologist positions because of higher salaries/supplements in neighboring public school units. I cannot offer them more money because there is severely restricted additional funding available.”

Makor said North Carolina’s school psychologists face a disparity in pay compared to the level of training required to qualify for the position — which includes a degree from a school psychology-specific training program, offered by only five public universities in the state.

The shortage eventually affects job satisfaction, as school psychologists find themselves unable to provide comprehensive services —  which Makor called a “vicious cycle,”

“Even outside of the pay factor, if they could, at least be able to serve kids in the way that they were trained to, you know, to be able to provide this gamut of services,” Makor said. “It’s hard when you don’t feel like you’re able to ever get there.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has created additional challenges for school psychologists, who have had to adapt their services to remote instruction methods across the state.
Meggs said the pandemic has made completing evaluations and speaking to teachers about their students more difficult. She also said Bladen County Schools is working on social-emotional learning programming for students as they return for in-person classes.

“When kids start to focus on things that they can control, they feel better about their circumstances,” Nyko said. “So it will be the same way when kids reenter, it’s going to be that, what can I control? What do I need to do, and then we teach them how to do that. And then kids tend to be more successful.”

Statewide, Makor said, the pandemic has increased the amount of time school psychologists spend on evaluation services, as they try to address an already existing backlog created by the lack of licensed staff.

“If there’s a need, I’m there,” Meggs said. “But with being the only psychologist, you know, you, you do what you have to do to meet the needs of the children.
“Do I wish I could do more of what I was trained to do? Yes, absolutely. But I do have a good team that we can rely on.”


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