It is tough out there. No matter who you talk to in education, grim is a common theme. Demands are growing. Stress is increasing. Resources are disappearing. Morale is sinking. Many people fear free-falling off the funding cliff. Others are adopting survival mode. The severity of the situation varies greatly from state to state but no one, it seems, is totally immune. Against this landscape, school psychologists are trying to assess prospects in terms of jobs, roles, ratios, and relevancy to the public discourse around school reform priorities.
It feels daunting. You can see why some folks are tempted by the instinct to throw up their hands in despair or hunker down until the storm passes and hope to emerge as intact as possible. Yet NASP is hearing from an increasing number of members who are choosing to craft a course of action to shape decision-making, even in small ways, rather than waiting to see how the larger economic and school reform forces play out.
The school psychologists in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), Maryland, are a prime example. "Basically, we have no other choice. We have the skills and knowledge to provide solutions and reform practice to better serve our students and families," explains June Lucas Zillich, coprésident with Debra Wotherspoon of the local Montgomery County School Psychology Association (MCSPA). "We are significantly stepping up our professional advocacy this year." The local group has developed a comprehensive advocacy plan involving every one of the school psychologists in the district.
MCPS is the 17th largest school district in the country, with more than 146,000 students and 200 schools (34 of which are National Blue Ribbon and 27 of which are Title 1). Once serving a predominately white middle class suburban population, MCPS has undergone the same demographic shifts in the past 2 decades seen in many school systems across the United States. Today the MCPS student population is 33% white, 26% Hispanic, 21% African American, 14% Asian American, and has students from 164 countries speaking 184 languages. Twelve percent of students receive special education services and 42% participate or have participated in the Free and Reduced-Priced Meals System (MCPS website: http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/uploadedFiles/about/ MCPS-At-A-Glance.pdf).
Wielding a budget of more than $2 billion, MCPS is also one of the top performing school districts in the country, with a 90% graduation rate (the best among the 50 largest school districts) and some of the nation's consistently highest achievement scores. Many credit the leadership of former MCPS superintendent Jerry Weast (1999-2011), ahighlyvisible and controversial school leaderwho ushered in the agenda of "Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap" by emphasizing and disaggregating achievement data even before No Child Left Behind was conceived. Current superintendent Joshua Starr is maintaining the focus on achievement but looking to move beyond a singular reliance on test scores to include broader outcome measures and an emphasis on student engagement and social-emotional learning. Dr. Starr has emphasized professional development, interventions, and community engagement as district priorities for the 2012-2013 school year. With the changes in district priorities also comes changes in leadership and organizational alignment, which in turn present new ways of addressing leadership staff. The school board is also very engaged in supporting the district and has been involved in intense discussion over budget issues in recent years with the County Council. All of these entities comprise the key decision-makers to whom the MCPS school psychologists know they must reach out and share how their specific skills can provide essential services in tight budgetary times.
Despite many enviable aspects of MCPS's position, the reality of the economy and direction of school reform is hitting hard here, too, and school psychologists are being affected. "We are certainly better off than some districts,yet many school psychologists feel underutilized," says Zillich. "Many of us feel that decision-makers are not aware of the breadth of our skill set and therefore the value of the investment in school psychologists." The reasons are both immediate-term fiscal issues and more entrenched, systemic disconnects between school psychologists' comprehensive skills and training and the actual provision of services. The local group's advocacy plan aims to address both.
Budgetary decisions are an immediate concern, according to Wotherspoon. In the past, school psychologists were under consideration for reduction in the school year, and the school board and administration are currently examining the possibility of cutting school psychologists' positions down from 12 months to io-months-20 days. Like the rest of the country, the possibility of reduced staff hours comes up against the inverse relationship between increasing student needs and decreasing resources, both within the district and the community. "A lot of people are wondering how they are going to get everything done when the caseload is already too high," says Wotherspoon. "How are kids really going to be served properly?"
This concern directly relates to the more long-term problem of not having the time and opportunity to work differently. Many people in the district still see school psychologists as primarily relevant to compliance, not as prevention/intervention specialists, particularly in terms of academics. Zillich notes that, "We often get pigeon-holed as testers rather than prevention/intervention specialists who are skilled at data-based decision making and able to address core curriculum, instruction, social-emotional learning, and behavior."
Another constraint in terms of being able to provide interventions that match student needs is that, in many schools, interdisciplinary teams need additional supports to implement evidence-based interventions. It is difficult to find the time necessary for psychologists to provide school staff with effective professional development. "Working smoothly together on specific interventions can be a challenge," says Zillich. "Staff require specific training, time, and support to appropriately develop and apply interventions. Our message is that school psychologists are trained to do just that."
THE PLAN AND THE NASP PRACTICE MODEL
The MCPS school psychologists started rethinking their professional advocacy efforts a few years ago with the release of the NASP Practice Model. Education stimulus funds were keeping dramatic budget cuts and layoffs at bay so the initial focus was on introducing the model to staff and district leaders, rather than on preserving jobs. The Practice Model, as intendedby NAS P, provided a framework for advocating for the comprehensive role of the school psychologist. The framework made sense as a goal even though there was quite a gap between the model and the current provision of school psychological services in the district. Initial advocacy efforts included discussions with district school psychologists and presentations to members of the school board and top district leaders.
In the past year, however, escalating budget realities and the transition in system leadership forcedMCSPAleaders to rethink efforts as creatively - and broadly - as possible. They determined that they had to move beyond top leadership both in terms of target audiences and in terms of who was doing the advocating. They developed a multipronged plan that involves all of the school psychologists and targets building leaders and parents as well district leaders. The following highlights key elements of the plan.
Establish goals. Knowing what you are asking for is a critical first step in advocacy. In the case of MCSPA, they seekthree specific outcomes: (a) preserve positions to serve our increasing student numbers and increasing needs; (b) improve understanding of school psychologists' comprehensive skills and, as a result, expand opportunities to provide more prevention/intervention services; and (c) earn a seat at the planning table with district leadership to collaborate on school reform. Clearly goals b and c will be an evolving process over time in a district this large. The timing for goal a is driven by the superintendent's budget plan for 2013-2014, which he will propose to the school board in November.
Be transparent and collaborative. It is very important that a local school psychology organization be perceived as supporting the district's school psychological services administrative structure. This would be true in any school district. The people are pretty much the same but the decision-making apparatus is not. Transparent, collaborative communication with program directors and their supervisors is key. In a district as large as MCPS, the key players include the director of school psychological services, the director of student services, the assistant superintendent for special education and student services, and ultimately, the superintendent.
Focus on educating new leaders at all levels. The thrust of outreach to district leaders is to share school psychologists' skill set and make the leaders aware of the positive contribution school psychologists can make in addressing student engagement and impacting student outcomes. Sometimes, Zillich acknowledges, it feels like starting over. "Relevant leaders change in a district this large," she says. "There are new people we have to involve and share with them all that a school psychologist can bring to the table. We realize that we are never done." This year, MCSPA has also added a major focus on building principals, even if they are not new to the district, because many are unaware of school psychologists' comprehensive skill set.
Link services to district priorities. The NASP Practice Model still provides the framework for explaining school psychologists' skills and training but the district priorities provide the reference points. MCPS has established three priorities for the year: interventions, community engagement, and professional development. Luckily all three of these are easily linked to the training and skills of a school psychologist as defined in the model. The group developed concrete examples of how school psychologists can support the districts objectives with their existing staff and with the specific skills that can be immediately accessed to address the stated priorities.
Develop key messages. Key messages are critical to establishing and maintaining clear, effective communications, particularly when you hope to have approximately 100 school psychologists doing the communicating. Zillich describes it as, "Our advocacy is only as good as our message." MCSPA folks worked from key messages developed by NASP: (a) school psychologists are an underutilized resource in MCPS and can be more effectively deployed to help achieve district priorities, (b) tapping school psychologists' broad skills is good for students and families, and (c) school psychologists are a wise investment in tough budgetary times. Each of these key messages is backed up by concrete examples and reinforced with an emphasis on what is good for students and families. Indeed, Zillich acknowledges how important - and sometimes challenging - it is to reframe staff frustration in order to focus on what is good for students and families, saying, "We have to stay positive and keep student outcomes at the center of our work and advocacy."
Identify achievable and coordinated outreach activities. The MCSPA plan lays out specific outreach activities targeting multiple stakeholders, including the school board, district leadership, parents, community providers, and building leadership. (See Communiqué Online Exclusive). A major goal is to have every school psychologist meet with at least one of their building principals to do a brief presentation and offer to assist the principal with a particular challenge or priority. The theme of these meetings is, 'This is what I can do; how can I help you." The school psychologists are being asked to identify one concrete example of their own to share regarding how their skills make a difference. This helps to put a face on the message. Zillich and Wortherspoon realize that people serving multiple buildings will not likely meet with all of their principals, but one principal seems reasonable. As Wortherspoon points out, "That's 100 school administrators who will be better informed and more likely to advocate on behalf of school psychological services if necessary when budget discussions take place." A centerpiece activity is a luncheon in late October hosted by MCSPA to which school board members and district leaders will be invited. The staff is being asked to invite their principals as well.
Provide staff with advocacy resources. Zillich worked with colleagues to develop a PowerPoint to use with top district leaders and group meetings and a briefer PowerPoint and handout for individual school psychologists to use when they meet with their principals. Key messages and examples are woven throughout. These examples are available in the October Communiqué Online (http://www.nasponline.org/cq). The group used the many resources providedby NASP as a starting point. Communications resources are available online for NASP members and can be found at http://www. nasponline.org/communications/index.aspx. Adaptable Practice Model resources are available at http://www.nasponline.org/standards/practice-model/Implementationand-Promotion-Resources.aspx.
At the time of writing this column, the MCPS school staff was just returning to work to prepare for school opening the last week of August and the school psychologists were just beginning to put their professional advocacy plan into action. By the time of publication, they will be midway through the build-up to the district-wide luncheon and presentations to the school board. Hopefully, 100 principals will have met with their school psychologists.
Zillich and Wortherspoon are both optimistic and realistic about the effectiveness of the advocacy plan. "We have to balance our sense of urgency around change as school psychologists with the reality of moving a system as large and complex as MCPS in a world where we don't control a lot of forces," observes Zillich. "But there is real excitement among staff because we are at least doing something." The hope is that, because they organized early and have learned from previous efforts, enough of their advocacy outreach will have an impact to keep moving forward. "It will be a huge achievement when change comes with us, not at us; when we are able to partake in decision-making that positions us to use our skill set as defined by the NASP Practice Model."
Clearly, each state and school district has unique challenges and opportunities. Every district, however, has the ability to implement a plan that improves decisionmaker understanding of school psychologists' skills and value. NASP encourages you to adapt ideas from districts like MCPS and utilize the many resources on the NASP website. For questions or further information, contact NASP Director of Policy and Professional Practice, Stacy Skalski (email@example.com) or NASP Director of Communications, Kathy Cowan (firstname.lastname@example.org.)
KATHERINE C. COWAN is NASP Director of Communications.…