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Butte school psychologist Braydon Schilling

Butte School District No. 1 school psychologist Braydon Schilling stands in the hallway at Whittier Elementary School last week. Schilling is one of three psychologists employed by the school district, and he says he hopes to see more positions added. "I think this community deserves more," says Schilling.

"A lot of people don't know about school psychologists," Braydon Schilling said in February.

But Schilling does.

A school psychologist for Butte School District No. 1 for about five years, Schilling knows what the National Association of School Psychologists knows: that a school psychologist helps break down barriers to students' learning and success; helps implement evidence-based instruction; helps parents make informed decisions about education of their children; and helps youth succeed academically, socially, behaviorally, and emotionally.

And Schilling knows something else about school psychologists: there aren't enough of them. Not in Butte, not in Montana, and not nationwide.

"We're taught to wear many hats, but with the big shortage of school psychologists, that's been difficult," Schilling said.

Though his position in Butte is his first job out of college, Schilling is considered the most tenured of the Butte public school district's three school psychologists, he said.

A typical week for Schilling is spent assessing students for potential special education placement at Whittier Elementary School, Hillcrest Elementary School, Butte High School, and the Butte High School Career Center. Schilling explained that he oversees roughly 2,500 students and that his large caseload makes it difficult for him to do much more than special education testing.

"Ninety percent of my time is spent testing kids," Schilling said. "It's frustrating because I feel stuck and pigeonholed."

Schilling explained that over 10 years ago, a school psychologist's main role was to act as the "special education gatekeeper," conducting assessments through the Child Find section of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This section requires states to have policies and procedures in place to ensure all children with disabilities are identified, located, and evaluated so they can receive the services they need to be successful students.

However, in recent years, that role has expanded to include more proactive interventions and data-based decision making, Schilling said.

And he said that because of the Butte-area shortage — which mirrors a larger state and nationwide trend — he is unable to impact local students, families, and the overall community in the way he was trained to do.

Rhonda Remsen, president of the Montana Association of School Psychologists, acknowledged that although school psychologists' staple duty is to provide assessment service through special education, the expansion of their roles has been the norm for the profession for many years.

"As the social, emotional, and mental health needs of students have continued to increase, it has been important for school psychologists to continue to hone their skills for supporting the needs of students," Remsen said via email. She also elaborated on the shortage of school psychologists nationwide and in Montana.

The National Association of School Psychologists stated in a recent research summary that longstanding shortages of school psychologists continue to threaten students' access to needed services.

While the association recommends a ratio of no more than 1,000 students per school psychologist, the national ratio during the 2014-2015 school year was an estimated 1,381 students to one school psychologist, according to the research summary. Only seven U.S. states met the recommended general ratio.

In Montana, Remsen said the shortage of school psychologists over the past five to 10 years is due in part to the relatively small number of graduating new school psychologists not matching the large number retiring. She also said it can be difficult to attract people to rural areas of the state and that general budget cuts for all educational programs force administrators to make tough decisions about where to spend their money.

Brice Corts, a school psychologist in Belgrade and a former school psychologist for Butte public schools, also spoke to the tough decisions school districts face.

"It's always one of those talks about what you need and what you want, and school psychologists fall into the 'want'," Corts said.

Corts explained that not only are school psychologists able to assess for special education placement, they are also well-versed in the law surrounding special education and the binding plans created for students, often acting as a sort of legal advocate for school districts and parents. Although he's noticed, like Schilling, that school psychologists are often viewed traditionally as special education gatekeepers, Corts said he understands why.

"A school district needs to get the bang for their buck for you, and that's through special education," Corts said.

Shawna Rader Kelly, who serves on the board of directors for the National Association of School Psychologists, also touched on the role school psychologists play on these special education teams and the tough decisions school districts are forced to make.

"The shortage is a complex issue," Kelly said. "We know there are some places where there aren't sufficient positions to meet the ratio, but there may also not be enough school psychologists to fill all of the open positions."

Much of Kelly's work with the NASP involves addressing the shortage of school psychologists. She said an important starting place is advocacy at the state and national level — and by school psychologists themselves about the role they play and the impact they can make.

"One of the important things we can do as individuals is advocate for a comprehensive role in schools," said Kelly, who works as a school psychologist in Bozeman. "I believe we are highly qualified to provide services that benefit teachers, families, and school leaders, and that results in better outcomes for the community."

Kelly also talked about the importance of recruiting young people to pursue careers as school psychologists in Montana.

The only school psychology program in the state is housed at the University of Montana in Missoula. The specialist program requires approximately 72 credit hours and a three-year course of study, putting program graduates in the field with more credits than most other positions in education, Kelly said.

Through this specialist program, the Montana Office of Public Instruction is taking steps to address the school psychologist shortage. According to the program website, if students agree to work within the state for two out of three years after earning a degree, they can receive a stipend of up to $6,000 a year while in school to put toward instructional costs.

Outside of this state support and local advocacy, Belinda Turley, the most recent school psychologist to join Butte School District No. 1, is doing her own recruiting. Turley said that over spring break this year, she plans to visit her alma mater, Idaho State University, to meet with its school psychology program leaders and put Butte on their radar as a place for graduates to go.

"I want to be their go-to person," Turley said.

Turley has been working with the school district since September. Although she shared some of Schilling's concerns with the shortage in the field, both she and Schilling spoke highly of working for the Butte school district.

"They seem to be open to different ideas and insights and are not scared to try new approaches," Turley said.

At the same time, Turley believes Montana could better harness the expertise of its school psychologists to gather and use data to make decisions about how best to educate students.

"I still think the role of a school psychologist is largely unknown, and the fact that we're unknown is a huge part of the problem," Turley said. "If we can become more integrated in popular culture, we can become a household name that gets discussed."

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