UNI Trying to Increase Number of School Psychologists in Rural Areas

(Radio Iowa) The University of Northern Iowa is using a U.S. Department of Education grant to try to improve access to mental health professionals in rural schools. UNI’s School Psychology Program Coordinator, Nicole Skaar, says it continues a previous “grow your own” effort to get more psychologists in schools.

“Taking current educational or related field professionals who have master’s degrees and are currently professionals in education or related fields, and retraining them to be school psychologists,” she says. Skar says this program will focus on the Great Prairie, Central Rivers, and Northwest Area Education Areas to train 15 school psychologists over the next five years. She says the national association recommends one school psychologist for every 500 students.

“Iowa is currently at one school psychologist to1,900 students. And if we’re looking at like, Great Prairie AEA — one of the AEA’s we’re currently partnering with — they are one school psychologist to every four-thousand students. So we clearly have a shortage of school psychs in Iowa,” Skar says. Skar says the first time they did the program those involved continued teaching while doing the work — but they’ve changed that this time.

“To get them through the program and doing all of their field experiences that are required for the program, it was really difficult to make all that work logistically,” Skar says. “And so we have worked with the AEA’s in this program to provide a new type of full-time employment, that would be sort of like school psych assistant work.” The program uses part of the $2.5 million grant to help them pay for their classes. Skar says there are teacher shortages in a lot of areas, and taking some existing teachers for the program is a concern.

“That’s one of the downfalls of this. We’re taking people who are already working as teachers or school counselors that may have a shortage area, and retraining them into school psychologists,” she says. Skar says they hope more psychologists can address some of the larger issues and help ease some of the pressure on the staff.

“We are providing psychological safety for both students and staff, so addressing student mental well-being and staff well-being that hopefully, we’re, you know, kind of cutting off, some of the more intensive issues that maybe school psychologists would be needed for, you know, needing more special ed teachers and things like that,” according to Skar. Skar says UNI at the same time is continuing to work on efforts to get more teachers into other fields as well to fill some of the gaps.