A longtime Fresno Unified school psychologist says the district needs to offer contracts to eight school psychologist interns who are being courted by a neighboring school district.
Susan Wittrup, who calls the interns “the cream of the crop,” says this isn’t the first time that interns would have undergone intensive training in Fresno Unified schools, only to be recruited by another district offering full-time jobs after graduation.
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She says Clovis Unified is preparing to offer contingency contracts to the interns, something she says Fresno Unified should be doing to keep them on board — especially since Fresno Unified’s staffing of school psychologists is below the levels recommended by school psychologist associations.
But a district spokeswoman said Fresno Unified has been expanding its staff over the past three years to meet the needs of its student population, while bringing its ratio of students-to-psychologists closer to the state average.
Fresno Unified Higher Than State Average
According to California Department of Education data for the 2018-19 school year, the state average ratio for the number of students to school psychologists was 977 to 1. The ratio recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists is 750 to 1, although EJ Reyna, a spokeswoman for the California Association of School Psychologists, said the current shortage of trained professionals makes that goal difficult to attain.
School psychologists are advocates for students’ well-being and assist them with processing issues such as problems with authority, poor academic performance, low self-esteem, and social anxiety.
According to state data, Fresno Unified’s ratio of students to school psychologists in the 2018-19 school year was 1,144 to 1. Three neighboring school districts had significantly lower ratios: Sanger Unified’s was 648 to 1, Clovis Unified’s was 656 to 1 and Central Unified’s was 690 to 1.
Fresno didn’t have the highest ratio in the Valley, however. Madera Unified’s ratio was 1,315 to 1 and Visalia Unified’s was 1,617 to 1, according to state data.
District Has Expanded Psychologist Staff
Fresno Unified spokeswoman Amy Idsvoog said there are no openings for school psychologists. But she said that Fresno now employs 77 school psychologists, including 15 hired over the past three years, which lowers the district’s ratio this year to 951 to 1.
It was unclear why the district and state reported different numbers of school psychologists for the 2018-19 school year.
Fresno Unified has invested in recent years in providing additional social/emotional supports for students beyond the supports provided by school psychologists, Idsvoog said.
And, the district added $13.2 million last year to the special education budget, she said.
‘Room For Us To Grow’
Fresno Unified board president Keshia Thomas acknowledged the lack of job vacancies but said she would like to see staffing expand. “I definitely think there’s room for us to grow,” she told GV Wire.
But Thomas said that decision is up to the board, which will have to weigh all the district’s priorities when deciding how to allocate budget funds.
She said the board could talk about the topic as early as tonight’s board meeting.
The Fresno Unified board sought recommendations from the Council of the Great City Schools to assess the district’s special education program and provide recommendations, which are being prioritized and implemented, said trustee Claudia Cazares.
“Hiring additional staff for all of our programs, including psychologists for our schools, is one of those priority actions that we continue to push for,” she said. “These are crucial needs for some of our most vulnerable students, and the superintendent and staff should prioritize funding.”
Psychologists Provide Much-Needed Support
Former board president Brooke Ashjian said the issue seems to arise every year in Fresno Unified. In early 2017, Ashjian said, he urged fellow board members to commit to hiring five interns so as not to lose them to other districts after they graduated.
And given the district’s demographics — nearly 90% of Fresno Unified students are from disadvantaged communities — the staffing of school psychologists needs to expand, he said.
According to the National Association of School Psychologists, schools with large numbers of students from disadvantaged communities need even higher numbers of school psychologists whose work benefits both students and classroom teachers.
The 2017 NASP research paper, “Shortages in school psychology: Challenges to meeting the growing needs of U.S. students and schools,” includes the following: “A major cause of attrition of teachers of students with emotional and behavioral disorders is lack of support from administrators, and researchers have cited school psychologists as having the professional expertise specifically needed to support these teachers. … Students who live under adverse social conditions or who are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds may have additional needs that schools struggle to address.”
Clovis On The Hunt For Job Candidates
In Clovis Unified, school psychologist candidates are being interviewed for current and future job openings, district spokeswoman Kelly Avants said.
Clovis currently has 67.1 full-time equivalent school psychologist jobs that are financed through locally controlled state funds plus district and school site funds, she said.
“We are planning for growth needs for the following school year, backfilling retirements, and adding additional psych time on an as-needed basis throughout the year,” she said.
Clovis Candidate Pool Accelerates Hiring
The district also has created a pool for candidates in hard-to-fill jobs like school psychologist, Avants said.
“We have opened a pool for psychologists, speech langugage therapists, nurses, and additional high-need positions,” she said. “The pools for our hardest-to-hire positions remain throughout the year as there are needs that arise during the school year and we want to have a ready pool of candidates who have already been through our rigorous screening process.”
Candidates who are in the applicant pool are not under contract, Avants said.
Hiring As Soon As Possible
Avants acknowledged that Clovis Unified has made a conscious effort to move up its hiring schedule as part of efforts to recruit the top candidates, especially for hard-to-fill jobs. By having a candidate pool, Clovis can hire more immediately when positions open, she said.
In Fresno Unified, officials are also pro-active about hiring — when positions are open, Idsvoog said.
“We absolutely make early offers to ensure we are acquiring the best talent available,” she said.