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New state hiring goals for school psychologists highlight pipeline, retention hurdles

Sophia Schmidt
Delaware Public Media

A bill passed by state lawmakers this spring set ambitious goals for hiring school mental health professionals. The new law dictates by 2025 public middle schools have one school psychologist for every 700 students and one school counselor or social worker for every 250 students.

But current school psychologists say that ratio will require an ambitious recruitment campaign - along with an effort to increase the scale of training programs and retain existing psychologists.

Delaware Association of School Psychologists co-chair Rosa DiPiazza says the state only has one school psychologist training program at the University of Delaware. It graduates fewer than two dozen students per year -and many leave. Additionally, most universities can’t expand programs, in part because of a shortage of professors created by the high national standards for the student-to-faculty ratio in school psychology certification programs.

“Just finding PhD practitioners can be a challenge," she said, "because there aren’t a lot of incentives to go through to that level instead of just staying at a Master’s [degree] or educational specialization and practicing in the schools.”

Ryan Palmer is a graduate of the state’s only school psychology program at the University of Delaware. He says one challenge is that school psychology certification requires a year-long internship, which can be financially and logistically challenging.

“Some districts have had conversations about having long-term rentals or having a house that the district fronts as an intern house," he said, "and they could have that on offer for when they pull interns from out of state or for interns who wouldn’t otherwise have funds for that.”

Under current circumstances, the Delaware Association of School Psychologists says that the state will likely need to depend on robust outreach and some out-of-state candidates to meet demand, particularly as state lawmakers look to expand mental health access to high schools in future legislative sessions. A typical month sees between 10 and 20 school psychologist positions vacant in Delaware - and the state already boasts a higher psychologist-to-student ratio than Maryland and Pennsylvania.

But DiPiazza notes Delaware’s efforts to improve psychologist-to-student ratios and a more advanced approach to student mental health care could draw school psychology graduates to the state.

The Association also notes burnout and attrition current school psychologists is also an issue — one that could be addressed by distributing workloads if recruitment goes well, and by offering overtime pay.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.