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DALLAS - Mental health plays a pivotal part in academic success.
"Do you think a student who was yelled at, abused at home or just bullied in the hall is in a frame of mind to learn at an optimal rate?" asked Scott Poland, retiring director of psychological services at Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District near Houston.
The answer, of course, is "no."
Poland, who has accepted a university teaching position in Florida, speaks from experience. He traveled to Colorado's Columbine High School and other sites of tragedy. He encouraged expression of emotions through artwork, music, projects and ceremonies. And he helped piece shattered lives back together.
"Schools cannot ignore the crisis and expect children to simply open their books and start working," Poland said. "It is a gradual return to the curriculum."
School psychologists handle crisis intervention - and much more.
They work with students and groups from preschool through high school, and train teachers and parents to manage behavior at home and in the classroom. They also target learning disabilities and mental disorders before performance plummets.
A landmark study, repeated every decade to evaluate the nation's mental health, has revealed that these disorders strike much earlier than other chronic conditions. Half of Americans will deal with a mental illness at some point, many by age 14.
The findings, published in Archives of General Psychiatry in June, were culled from 10,000 in-person interviews of adults 18 and older. They highlight the importance of early detection and treatment.
School psychologists are in a unique position to recognize subtle signs that parents and teachers might miss, experts say.
"You're involved in the lives of children," said Al Mayo, president of the Texas Association of School Psychologists and coordinator of individual evaluation for the Dallas Independent School District.
Without help, speech-language delays, dyslexia, depression and a host of other disorders would progress to a level where the damage becomes difficult to undo.
"Those of us in the schools are often the first to identify children's problems and to work with them," said Michael Parker, president-elect of the Texas Association of School Psychologists and director of psychological services at the Fort Worth Independent School District.
"The growing needs of children - combined with financial cutbacks to community services - create an increasing demand for the services of school psychologists."
A shortage of these professionals will deepen in public schools.
"Many practitioners entered the field in the 1970s, when the first federal legislation was passed for special education. That large number of practitioners is now retiring in droves," said Dan Miller, director of the school psychology doctoral program at Texas Woman's University in Denton. And educational institutions can't train replacements fast enough.
"The thing that's most exciting about being a school psychologist is it's like playing a detective with every single child," Miller said.
"The day of a school psychologist is so varied," he said. "You can have nothing on your calendar when you walk into a school one day. And by the end of the day, you have dealt with a crisis intervention, you have consulted with teachers, you have done some assessments, early intervention and prevention activities, and even some counseling as well."
With so many responsibilities, finding enough hours for counseling poses challenges. The intense workload focuses on evaluations and referrals to special education services. Then it's time to move on to the next child, said TWU's Miller, who is also past president of the National Association of School Psychologists.
School psychologists are typically assigned to one or more schools - up to a half-dozen, depending on a district's size and number of specialists. If enough financial resources were available, the ideal ratio would be one school psychologist per 2,000 children, Miller said.
"We are not close to that ratio in the state of Texas. In the urban areas, we're doing a better job. We really have a shortage when it comes to school psychology practitioners in the rural areas."
To provide psychological services in the state's public schools, practitioners must be licensed by the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists. Training for licensed specialists in school psychology, known as LSSPs, includes at least 60 graduate hours and a one-year internship under the supervision of an experienced LSSP.
This leads to a master's degree.
Only about 20 percent of the national association's members have doctorates, Miller said.
"It's nice to have a Ph.D., but it's not for everybody. There are only a few districts in the state that pay a little more if people have their Ph.D. - sometimes as little as a couple hundred a year."
The Lewisville Independent School District is among the exceptions. It offers a $7,000 annual bonus to school psychologists with doctorates. In the last decade, Miller said, the district has hired many TWU graduates.
Private schools tend to employ only licensed psychologists with doctorates. Because there are fewer private schools, the demand isn't as great.
Median annual earnings of elementary and secondary school psychologists reached $54,480 in 2002, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Even experienced mental health practitioners realize the rewards of a steady paycheck.
"Because of managed care in our country, it's actually harder to make a living in private practice," Miller said. "We have a lot of people coming back to schools, asking how to get retrained as a school psychologist. That's where the jobs are in today's workplace - delivering services to kids in the public arena."
National Association of School Psychologists: www.nasponline.org
Bureau of Labor Statistics: www.bls.gov/oco/ocos056.htm
(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.