Policy Matters Blog

Beyond the Classroom and Into the Community

For me, the holiday season is a time to cozy up with my family and celebrate. It is joyous and rejuvenating and hopeful. From Thanksgiving through the New Year, I am given constant reminders of all that I have been afforded and I am allowed the space and energy to imagine the growth and bloom of my future. I am privileged to be able to provide for my family, stay warm in the cold, and embrace the season to its fullest.  

As school psychologists, we often serve children and families that do not have these opportunities. We support families who may not see winter months as joyous, who do not get time off to spend with family, or who cannot afford the clothing or gifts their children desperately want or need. When asked about my school district, I say that we are a fairly average district. Compared to the rest of the state of Oregon, my district’s demographics are representative of the demographics of the rest of the state. Even our test scores and graduation rates fall in the average range compared to the rest of the state. However, the average family household income in my city is $42,000 per year, which is less than the average income of a single individual in the state of Oregon. Over 95% of our school children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, my district’s leadership was slow to recognize the inequities that poverty brought into our classrooms. With test scores and attendance as common outcome metrics, and our students functioning averagely, the general needs of families were considered beyond our scope. However, we discovered that the resources that schools had been providing to students in person were often what kept a family from experiencing a crisis. We now saw the systemic poverty and growing disparities among our students and their families through a computer screen. Requests for rental assistance, energy bill support, food, clothing, and mental health counseling were off the charts. Suddenly, available district resources were simply inadequate to meet the growing needs of our families. 

The district decided to act and invest funding in Family Resource Educational Assistants at each of our buildings. The individuals hired would be available during school hours to meet with families, find local community resources, build partnerships, and assist families with directly connecting to needed services. This was an exciting prospect to all of the mental health professionals who had been previously doing this work and would allow more time for much-needed direct mental health support for students.   

The only identified barrier to this proposed program was who would supervise this group of individuals. Leadership wanted a certified staff member and decided to hire a Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) for the role. By this time, I had been serving the district as a School Psychologist on Special Assignment (SPOSA) part-time for several years creating community mental health partnerships. This role shifted during Covid to being a full-time district-level knowledge bank of available local resources and finding needed services and supports for youth and families. Myself and my administrator, also a trained school psychologist, proposed to district leadership that they allow me to be the temporary supervisor of this group with the goal of integrating them into our already-designed tiered systems of support. Our proposal was approved for a one-year pilot.  

Last month Nicki Sutton, GPR co-chair, posed the question “What actions will you take today to improve education inequities that exist in your district and school?” Well, I am proud to say that our team has been meeting bi-monthly to problem-solve collaboratively and hear from local organizations, businesses and nonprofits that serve families on how we can more easily access services for our communities. We have created direct referral systems and resource maps, asked questions, and connected with each other on the needs of shared families across buildings. Our family resource community has grown to be an integral part of our district and I am not sure how we ever functioned without them. 

I encourage us all to reflect broadly on what impact a school psychologist can have in a community and to consider the opportunities available when we put a big-picture lens to a problem. What is one issue in your community that you wish you could solve if you just had enough support? How can a few key allies help make that vision a reality?  

This blog is part of a series of posts written by members of the NASP GPR Committee. Read the previous post here.