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An NIU program seeks to address a shortage of school psychologists. Can it address the lack of diversity too?

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School psychologists are in high demand and so are practitioners that reflect the diverse student populations they serve. An NIU program will train future school psychologists to work in high-need areas in northern Illinois. WNIJ spoke with officials involved in the program to see how it will also address the lack of diversity in the profession.

Down the hallway, tucked in the support services department at Glenbard South High School in Glen Ellyn is school psychologist Dr. Caicina Jones’ office.

She’s the sole school psychologist at the school of a thousand-plus students and she’s pretty busy.

“So, we're still seeing some kids are able to come back in and get right back to it,” Jones said. “But we have those others who are really having a hard time with just organizing themselves and had to really rebuild stamina,” she said.

The ideal ratio of school psychologists to students is one to 500, according to the National Association of School Psychologists.

Less wealthy schools have a harder time meeting that standard.

NIU is a recipient of a US. Department of Education $5 million grant aimed at addressing the shortage in school psychologists. The end result will be about 24 school psychologists working in school districts where they're needed the most.

It’s a unique program. The pool of participants will come from the teachers and staff at a select number of districts in need of school psychologists. The grant pays for the participants’ tuition, expenses and covers their current salary in the duration of their one-year internship.

“And so that breaks down barriers right there,” Jones said.

Jones received her doctorate in school psychology from NIU. She will be teaching two introductory courses in the program.

On top of a shortage in school psychologists, there’s also a need for diversity in the profession to reflect the student populations they’ll be serving. The school psychology profession is still predominantly made of white women, even as the student population continues to grow in diversity.

NIU Psychology Professor Christine K. Malecki is the director of the school psychology program. She says the U.S. Department of Education has made the recruitment of participants to reflect the racial/ethnic background of the students an important criterion.

“It's not an absolute requirement, but it's something that just makes sense, especially if you're recruiting for a homegrown kind of program,” Malecki said.

Studies find that students from underserved groups receive better care when their school psychologist shares a similar racial/ethnic background. That’s attributed to higher cultural competency and sensitivity.

Malecki said for a child who is struggling, a family is more likely to accept a referral for additional support if they feel comfortable with their school psychologist.

“If they've had a good experience with that mental health provider in school,” she said, “and the more representative that mental health provider is of their family of their, of their child, you know, then it may increase the chances that is successful.”

DeKalb School District 428 is one of the districts participating in the program.

Kyle Gerdes is the district’s director of Student Services. He says in the district there are seven school psychologists. If they were fully staffed, there would be 12. He says since the last school year, they've had the hardest time filling the school psychologist position.

“Across the country, there's just a shortage of school psychologists that are coming trained out of grad school,” he said.

He says diversity is at the forefront when selecting the pool of candidates.

“Both their own diversity,” Gerdes said, “but experience working with a diverse group of adults and students is one of the priorities that we're [also] looking for.”

Of the seven current psychologists, there is one Latina bilingual psychologist -- and no Black psychologists.

That’s nowhere near being reflective of the district’s student population which is about a third each White, Black, and Latino and one percent Asian.

School administrators sent out a list of candidates made of employees of the school to NIU. Together they will select the folks to participate in the program.

Gerdes would not specify the number of Black and Latino applicants recruited but Lisa Becker, the assistant director of student services says they have a diverse applicant pool.

“But we were happy with the diverse applicants,” Becker said.

The pool of Black and Latino teachers that could potentially participate in the program is pretty slim.

WNIJ has previously reported on the little progress the district has been making to diversify the teacher pool. In 2013, about three percent of all teachers were Black. In 2022, that percentage didn’t change.  The number of Latino teachers has fared just a dash better. In 2013, five percent of all teachers were Latino. In 2022, they made up seven percent of the total 434 full time teachers.

There’s also a need for more gender diversity. Professor Malecki says men are underrepresented in the field at a time when boys are having more behavioral challenges in school than girls.

“Having those men that are directly accessible to them in the school building,” Malecki said, “is so important.”

The DeKalb School District has one male school psychologist.

The first cohort is scheduled to begin in June and will be made up of eight students, two of which will be from the DeKalb School District.

In addition to the DeKalb School District, the Belvidere School District, Harlem District and the Northwest Special Education Cooperative will also benefit from the program.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.