Kari Oyen, Ph.D., LP, NCSP, program director and associate professor of school psychology, and Miranda Zahn, Ph.D., assistant professor of school psychology, were recently awarded the grant that will give the USD school psychology program the opportunity to train more school psychologists.

School psychologists are equipped to provide a comprehensive set of services, including promoting positive behavior and mental health, supporting diverse learners, creating safe and positive school climates, strengthening family-school partnerships, improving school-wide assessment and accountability, and supporting academic achievement.

USD offers the only school psychology degree in South Dakota. It has been accredited by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) since 2000.

“School psychologists are an integral part of addressing the academic and mental health needs in schools,” said Oyen. “They are situated to provide services where children spend most of their time – in schools.”

The services provided by school psychologists are severely limited in the state. During the 2020-2021 school year, South Dakota had a ratio of 1:1,617 school psychologist to students. The NASP recommends a 1:500 ratio. In addition, South Dakota has one school psychologist for approximately every 800 square miles, meaning that there is significant distance between students who need support and the professionals who can serve them.

When school psychologists experience high ratios and high distances to travel, the services that they can provide are limited,” Oyen explained. “Shortages also increase the likelihood that they will burn out of the profession due to the high task demands and limited roles they can play in schools.”

Over the next five years, the grant funds will allow the school psychology program to provide financial assistance to graduate students in the program, enhance training, and offer comprehensive practicum and internship placements.

USD’s Oyen and Zahn will first meet with schools across South Dakota to determine high-need areas to better address the school psychology shortage.

With the grant, USD aims to train 12 new highly skilled school psychologists who will work for a minimum of three years in a comprehensive school mental health role within the high-need areas of the South Dakota.

Additionally, up to three postdoctoral fellows will be prepared to serve as school psychology trainers in institutions of higher education.

Area school mental health professionals will also be invited to participate in didactic training via session recordings, reaching over 200 school-employed mental health professionals in South Dakota during the granting period and years to come. Training will support school mental health professionals to advocate for and perform an expanded school mental health role within their high-need school communities.

“Students in schools can be served more effectively by members of their own communities, who frequently can’t become school psychologists due to financial constraints associated with training,” Zahn said. “By creating equitable access to training, we can increase participation of folks who will serve their communities for years to come.”

The grant includes partnering with three educational service agencies, the South Central Cooperative and the Sioux Falls School District, encompassing 117 schools and nearly 32,000 students.

“It is an honor to partner with South Dakota school districts to think creatively how to address the significant shortage of school psychologists,” Oyen said. “We know that home-growing school psychologists has not only a lasting impact on the profession, but also and more importantly, has an impact on the children in our state. We are thrilled to partner with these districts and hope this can be the beginning of continued partnerships with all school districts in South Dakota.”

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