DeKALB — As the need for youth mental health supports has reached a crisis level amid the pandemic, DeKalb School District 428 leaders said they’re struggling to recruit school psychologists.
The district has five positions available for full-time school psychologists despite recruitment efforts, officials said.
But that’s nothing new for schools in District 428, officials said.
“More locally in our district, it has not been uncommon over the past three years for us to be short of at least one, if not more, school psychologists, despite our obvious job postings, attendance at job fairs, connecting with graduate programs in the state and across the country,” said Kyle Gerdes, District 428 Student Services Manager. “More locally, [Northern Illinois University] has a very good school psychology program which we certainly benefit from from time to time from some of their graduates. But even with this program in our backyard, we still struggle to fill all of our openings.
Gerdes said the field of school psychology in general has faced its share of challenges over the years for a number of reasons.
“It was partly due to the arrival of many retirees,” said Gerdes. “There are not as many [school] psychology graduate programs across the country, as there are for other careers in education. It is competitive to enter these programs. The pipeline of school psychologists does not exist, and this has been known for several years.
If District 428 were to fill its five vacancies, the district would have 13 school psychologists on staff. This would represent an increase of two positions from last spring, when the school board decided to budget for more help.
“That’s because we felt there was a need for more than what we currently had staffed,” Gerdes said.
Last week, the school board authorized an amendment to a contract between the district and the Center for Special Education Services to provide special education assessments.
Since then, the district has not had a candidate or an opportunity to hire a school psychologist, officials said.
“The prospect of filling these mid-year positions is really low because people are usually hired during the summer or spring for the upcoming school year,” Gerdes said. “[I’m] does not say that we will not be able to fill one or some of these positions. But I would say that right now the positions have been posted for several months now and, unfortunately, [we] we just don’t have the candidates we would have hoped for.
Ann Reineck, a school psychologist at Founders and Jefferson Elementary Schools, said it was a balancing act assigned to two schools instead of one building in a typical year.
“For me personally, I know I can’t be as involved as I would like or would be if we were full,” Reineck said. “Generally, I would like to be more proactive in working with the teams. … But, unfortunately with the shortage, I don’t have as much time or flexibility in my schedule to be on those teams. I work with students when they have already reached the point where we think they might need additional services. So I can’t get involved as early as I would in a typical year.
Reineck said the administration is trying to avoid assigning staff school psychologists to a third school building and instead turning to contracting out special education assessment services.
“It’s hard enough to be stretched out together [buildings]said Reineck.
Gerdes said he thinks contracting out special education assessment services would benefit school psychologists on staff.
“The group that we contracted with, they’re really going to help us with the special education assessments in some of our schools,” Gerdes said. “They are able to take part of the role of our school psychiatrist and cover that part of it. What they aren’t able to cover is a lot of the things that school psychiatrists do on a daily basis in the buildings, whether that’s working one-on-one with students or working with staff.
Reineck said that while she has not yet contracted special education assessment services, she is aware of the resource that is available to her.
Reineck said she feels supported by the district and appreciates the efforts made by Gerdes and Lisa Becker, assistant director of student services for District 428.
Gerdes said he doesn’t believe the number of school psychologist vacancies is hurting the district’s ability to meet student mental health needs.
“Obviously we have five openings,” he said. “That being said, we believe we need five more school psychologists to really be able to provide the kind of support that we would ideally like to provide. However, due to this shortage, what we have been able to do, we need to think a little differently about how we provide mental health support to students.
Last spring, the school board supported the addition of several school counselors and social workers who would help students in the district with difficulties, officials said.
Gerdes said the district is maintaining efforts to meet the mental health needs of students.
“We actually have a lot more resources than we had last year to address the mental health needs of students,” Gerdes said. “Unfortunately, at the moment, given the shortage of school psychologists, we could still use more if we had these positions filled. That said, I think we have been able to achieve a fairly good result so far this year in terms of accessibility of services in our schools thanks to some of the other positions that have been added.