Shortage of school psychologists in Georgia threatens academic and mental health needs

A south Georgia grand jury indicts a sheriff and two deputies related to alleged abuses during a schoolwide pat-down in Worth County.

Matthew J. Vignieri is a school psychologist in Hall County and co-chair of the Advocacy Committee of the Georgia Association of School Psychologists.

In this essay, he discusses an issue that gets little public attention in Georgia, the shortage of school psychologists.

By Matthew J. Vignieri

School psychologists in Georgia are struggling to meet the demands of high caseloads due to a severe shortage of professionals in the field.  These mental health specialists are typically employed by school systems and apply practical principles of psychology to improve educational outcomes.  A critical component of their work includes psychological evaluation, where they administer and interpret assessments of intelligence, psychological processing, and/or emotional well-being; the importance of these measures is accentuated by federal mandates requiring that they be utilized as part of a student’s eligibility for special education services.

Due to the shortage, school psychologist struggle to meet deadlines for these evaluations and have little time to utilize other aspects of their training including counseling and consultation with schools, families, students, and community providers.  Ironically, their ability to help develop and implement academic, social, emotional, and/or life-skills interventions can prevent many common problems from occurring in the first place, thus reducing the need for special education evaluations and services.  Regardless, having so few school psychologists ultimately leads to high evaluation caseloads which therefore make it difficult for an individual psychologist to assist in ways aside from assessment.

The effects that the shortage has on families in Georgia are as numerous and unique as the problems children can face.  One issue centers on the time it takes for a student to be assessed.  A child with a learning disorder may struggle in a general education setting for years before being evaluated and found eligible for specialized instruction. By that time, they are multiple grade levels behind their peers.

In some cases, catching up is impossible.  Children with emotional needs are worse off in many ways, as therapeutic services are not yet offered as part of special education plans.  Their parents may have to wait months for assessment results that are needed to make informed decisions regarding private mental healthcare.

National and state leaders in the field are still working to understand the extent of the shortage.  While there are close to 770 school psychologists overseeing Georgia’s estimated 1.6 million students, there are more than 50 available positions across the state.  Many of these positions will likely go unfilled during the 2016/2017 school year.

Determining the complex reasons behind the shortage is a work in progress, but it is certain that training comes into play somewhere. Over the past five years, an average of 27 school psychologists graduated from one of three training programs at Georgia State University, Georgia Southern University, or the University of Georgia. This past year only 18 students in total graduated from these programs.  Several of these will leave the public sector and/or state entirely in search of better work conditions, higher pay, and the ability to practice more broadly; all of this is available to some extent in surrounding states.  On the other end of the career timeline, the fact that a large percentage of school psychologists are eligible for retirement within five years is a factor that will compound the shortage in Georgia in the future.

It is likely that there is no one solution to increase the number of school psychologists across the state; doing so will necessitate a combined effort between national and state leaders in the field, legislators, school psychologist trainers, school administrators, and community members.  As some members of the public are unaware that school psychologists even exist, primary efforts must be towards promoting the practice, and thereby the shortage, more effectively. School psychologists, myself included, must try harder to attend school board meetings and meet with local and state legislators.  We must go beyond simply writing policy-makers, to sitting down face to face, extending our services, and building relationships.  And by all means, it is imperative that we become more active in local, state, and/or national school psychology and educator associations.

At the university level, school psychology trainers must put forth greater effort toward improving the internship process for certification in the field.  There is an abysmal lack of paid internships in Georgia, which leaves many prospective school psychologists with no choice but to finish their training in other states.  For example, the school psychology program at Ohio University is strategically partnered with their state’s Department of Education to offer internships with a salary close to $40,000.  Interns in Mississippi earn between $25,000 and $30,000 per year.  Georgia’s school psychology training programs are encouraged to form a coalition to improve the internship process via strong partnerships with not only with the Department of Education but every school system across the state.

As with many educational initiatives in our society, funding is one barrier toward increasing the numbers of school psychologists in Georgia.  While the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act provides several new opportunities for financing school psychologist’s efforts to improve school climate, federal House and Senate Appropriations Committees must commit to fully funding such initiatives.  Therefore, I implore legislators at all levels to support full funding for ESSA Title IV, particularly Part A.

Once appropriated, Georgia legislators must do everything possible to bring the state’s decades old funding formula for school psychologist positions into alignment with National Association of School Psychologist recommendations that one psychologist serve no more than 1000 students; the fact that school psychologists in Georgia have been funded at a state-wide ratio of 1:2475 for almost a quarter-century is completely unacceptable.

I challenge community members to imagine what Georgia would look like if it were possible to have a school psychologist in every single school building.  What is the potential for other sectors of our society after 10 years of teaching children in a manner that not only improves their academic well-being, but their emotional development and social potential?  I believe that Georgia is able to lead the way here, and increasing the number of school psychologists is just one step of many in a direction that will be of benefit to our society’s most important resource: our children.

Reader Comments 0

39 comments
Harlequin
Harlequin

While some very nice ideals are expressed in this article, I can't say that I knew one counselor in the school systems I worked for that actually did counseling. Most if not all, were basically administrative "paper-shufflers," unless it was standardized test time, of course. Most of the Associate School Psychologists I knew, were too busy trying to get caught up on a never-ending caseload of Special Education eligibility testing. If they did any counseling, it was strictly on the sly. There are students who have mental health problems in the public schools that could be helped by these professionals in a proactive rather than a reactive manner but unless there is a change in the typical school culture of: "If we pretend it isn't there, maybe it will go away," I don't see that happening. Sending kids off to a "special school" for Emotional-Behavior problems may not be an option in the near future, if the U.S. Department of Justice has its way.  

HotDawg
HotDawg

It's still a wussified country, today.

We're not talking about disabled kids here.

We're talking mostly about a bunch of idiots that think they need special privileges.

If some kid needs serious help, the help is there. Very rarely does either a teacher, administrator or parent ignore a whacko, mental health problem. Rarely do they not bring it's attention to a proper authority.

Instead, people tend to think of such things as A.D.D. as priority "mental health" problems that deserve a psychologist in every school. And to prescribe a pill for every childhood drama.

This country is nuts.

Discipline and proper education in schools can only help this country. Not babying everybody.

Help the physically and mentally disabled. But quit pretending everyone is mentally disabled and needs pills and psycholigists and psychiatrists.

LittleBug72
LittleBug72

@HotDawg You speak as if you have some experience. So you may already know that autism spectrum disorder is growing at an accelerated rate and is often difficult for unknowledgeable parents and teachers to recognize. School psychologists also work with children from dysfunctional homes, which clearly parents will often try to hide. I assure you, no one is being "babied". Many children would lose their way, fall through the cracks and end up filling up our penitentiaries. Why don't we take care of them while their still young, to avoid that outcome?

Harlequin
Harlequin

@HotDawg: How do you define a "whacko mental health problem?" (Yes, this question is rhetorical!)

Michael McIntyre
Michael McIntyre

But, but.....Jeb Bush told us that Psychology majors were insignificant. (Yeah, that Jeb Bush....the one who totally misread the -- get this -- psychology of today's Republican voter.)

Harlequin
Harlequin

And I thought "King George II" was a drag!

frogg
frogg

There are quite a few School Psychologists around the state that would be MORE than happy to get back to work...IF the districts would consider part time positions with real salaries rather than trying to engage us as contractors for piddles per evaluation. 

HotDawg
HotDawg

Welcome to the Obama world.

Employers only offer PART TIME work to avoid having to pay BENEFITS.

Harlequin
Harlequin

@frogg: One of the most important requisites for a modern school administrator (besides the "gift of gab") is being "tight with a buck!"

Kellie Huff
Kellie Huff

I'm thinking it's somewhat related to the federal lawsuit over GNETS. Folks jumped ship to avoid the consequences.

Melissa PHD
Melissa PHD

No.  Many GNETS centers do not even have a psychologist.  They are not administrators, they are service personnel. 

Another comment
Another comment

Many of us do pay the dollars out of pocket to have our children evaluated by PHD's and MD.s for ADD and ADHD. In order to have the damn 504 plans filled out and our students given the proper medication and therapy. All paid for by us. We do not collect SSDI, either.

I only Friday that my child's Fulton county High school 504 coordinator only works part time on Tuesday and Wensday. So she can not set up an initial meeting for a month. My reply was this was unacceptable!! Fulton county needed to take my homeowner property taxes and make her position full time. This is a Federal mandated, and I will sue if the services are not provided.

BetterDog
BetterDog

Hey Peter.  When Jimmy Carter created the Admin. jobs in schools the budget got stretched.  Too many not need employees in our schools.  The needed positions like Nurses that are needed have to take a hit.  Teachers Unions in Ga. have killed the education system.  Too many not needed employees equals dumb kids.  Take a count of the teachers in your school.  Then look at how many jobs are admin. or whatever the magic title is now.  Why are these folks even employed.  Ole Tired Stupid Jimmy Carter strikes again. 

L_D
L_D

@Starik  Graduation coaches are mandated by state law.  Talk to your state legislators to remove the mandate.

Starik
Starik

@Another comment How so? I'd rather have a psychologist in a school, particularly a high school, than a "graduation coach."  How many districts have more administrative staff than teachers?

BetterDog
BetterDog

I believe a much larger issue is the Wussification of Males in America.  If I see another white wispy femine male on the news I will scream.  This is sending a very bad message to the world.  All men in America are snowflakes.  Another result of Feminism in America.  Emasculation of the American Male is going to be a big problem in our future.  Its a Man's World girls.  Get used to it.  Look at Obama and his recent trip to China and the Philippines.  Vlad Putin laughs at Obama and John Kerry.  This is a matter of National Security.  Feminists really screwed up this country.  In many way. 

redweather
redweather

Like reading aptitude, mental health must be addressed early on.

Starik
Starik

@redweather Yes, but most people develop serious mental illnesses in the mid to late teens.

BetterDog
BetterDog

Why is it that most educated and somewhat successful adults in Atlanta went to school without any squints.  Don't think anyone ever heard of a squint when most Georgians were going to school.  Ole tired second worst president Jimmy Carter created the Dept. of Education on his  watch.  So not only has Jimmy Carter made all the kids stupid.  He has handed them a crutch even before they get out of school. Thanks Jimmy.    

Truly S.
Truly S.

@BetterDog I actually had to look up "squint" because I was unfamiliar with this particular derogatory term. You don't sound like a very compassionate person, and the fact that you seem to blame Jimmy Carter for everything and think the Department of Education is a "crutch" doesn't say much for your opinions.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

We had, for years, a school psychologist so incompetent, no unethical, that, if he did get around to testing a child, you could count on the child NOT getting any sped help! I sat in a meeting for a kid coming into our system with testing complete from another system, but no IEP in place.  Our psychologist interpreted the results backwards!  I finally asked for a break and went into the hall with him to demand that he straighten it out! One time he even tested the wrong kid.


He sat in the office day after day, drinking coffee, reading the paper, going to the bathroom and out to lunch, and then, at the end of the year, he had "no time" to test the kids, and the system would have to hire him back in the summer (for more money) to finish the testing!


He gave only the most perfunctory tests and then declared kids not eligible--his favorite saying was "just missed the score."  He also was heard to say he knew who buttered his bread--the school system loved him because he never qualified anyone for sped services.


He finally got in trouble with the state for his poor work and was let go.  The state had a problem with his page and a half write ups on the test results, especially when his standard suggestions to teachers were to "seat the child close to the front" and "redirect the child by a touch on the arm or shoulder" and other such drivel that no teacher in their right mind had not tried.


The psych who came after him was the opposite.  She reviewed all his files and found many students whose even meager test results showed they qualified for services!  And when a child was referred for testing, she worked diligently to find out what was wrong!  As a result, she was fired in less than 2 years--"We have too many kids in sped."


So perhaps we do need more psychologists, but they need to be child-focused, aware of child development, hard-working, willing to give credence to the teachers' reports, and, what would be even better, to have ACTUALLY TAUGHT CHILDREN BEFORE!

Truly S.
Truly S.

@Wascatlady It is important for school psychologists to thread the needle between not finding any child eligible for special education and finding everyone they test eligible. Of course, the decision isn't theirs alone; it's a team decision.


Also, while it's nice if school psychologists have taught children before, it's not required in order for them to be competent at their work. What is necessary is that they listen to teachers, have an appreciation for what they do and the challenges involved, and become active consultants to them in helping students succeed.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@Truly S. @Wascatlady I think you are correct, but time in the classroom, and, especially in a classroom of kids years behind who need to go through the crazy RTI process, might wake some up.


It was so refreshing when we had the psych who realized the child had been referred NOT for the fun of it, but because s/he was experiencing SIGNIFICANT problems, and likely had for YEARS.

Tcope
Tcope

In situations like this, I default to personal responsibility. If your kid needs mental health care, find a professional and hire them with your own money. If you can't afford to take care of children why did you have them?

Truly S.
Truly S.

@Tcope I suppose you don't agree with federal law, which mandates that children with disabilities be offered a free and appropriate public education? You don't see this as a general good that's worth paying for through taxes? Would you rather that people with mental health issues whose parents could not afford private mental health care become burdens on society?


It's like the old oil filter commercials used to say..."You can pay me now or pay me later."

HotDawg
HotDawg

More of the wussified generation.

Didn't need school psychologists for the longest time. Let parents parent, teachers teach, police police. If the parents agree there is a need for a psychologist, for some reason, then let them handle the arrangements.

And allow the parents and teachers to discipline the old fashioned way. Enough of the PC BS.

CSpinks
CSpinks

@Peter_Smagorinsky @HotDawg We need more licensed clinical social workers (real social workers with mental health training, not DFACS case workers and truant officers) to help many of our kids solve the emotional and behavioral problems they bring to school with them.


P.S. We also need out-of-state financial and personnel auditors, too, of course.

Starik
Starik

@CSpinks @Peter_Smagorinsky @HotDawg Five days a week the schools spend more time with kids than their parents do, and under different, often more stressful circumstances. Really serious mental illnesses like Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia often develop in high school, and the school may see the problem before parents do, considering adolescents' spending most of their home time with friends or in their room.

Truly S.
Truly S.

@HotDawg School psychologists have been around for a long time, whether you knew it or not. They partner with parents to help them parent and teachers to help them teach so that there is less need for "policing." And when you say "Enough of the PC BS," and talk about "allowing the parents and teachers to discipline the old fashioned way," it sounds like you're one of those people who thinks all kids in trouble need is a good spanking. As questionable as that premise is when it comes to mental health issues, I'd also like to see where any child was successfully spanked out of having a physical disability. Do you really think that kids with hearing or visual impairments, or cerebral palsy, just need a good spanking to whip them into shape? School psychologists aren't just mental health counselors...they play a huge role in helping students like these get the services they need. If you think all school psychologists do is coddle wimpy kids whose "feewings are hurt," you don't know the half of what they do.

Peter_Smagorinsky
Peter_Smagorinsky

@HotDawg It's not a matter of being a "wussy." Mental health is not a character issue, it's a neurological issue. In addition to the shortage of school psychologists, there is a shortage of school nurses, which further makes it difficult for schools and their educational mission, especially in areas where poverty interferes with health care. I agree with Starik: low taxes = low services. But can we afford the costs of low services to the well-being of students in school? And can we then blame their teachers for their academic performance if they are unhealthy in body and mind? I'm sure that some readers will respond, "Sure!" But I don't think so.

Starik
Starik

Georgia: low taxes, poor services.