In the last three years, Fort Bend schools have seen the demand for special education almost double. More teachers and parents are asking for children to be tested for a disability – which district leaders say is a huge step forward since the end of a Texas policy that denied services to tens of thousands of children for over a decade.
The problem is they don't have enough qualified staff to perform those detailed and technical evaluations, according to Fort Bend Independent School District leaders. In particular, the large suburban district needs more licensed specialists in school psychology, also known as LSSPs.
"It's a ton of pressure," says Jennifer Byrne, the district's assistant director for special education. "I'm constantly thinking about it, at night, in the shower – What else can I do? What can we try differently? Every year we've tried something different."
Here's what they've tried: a $5,000 signing bonus, a retention bonus and shifting some duties to counselors to lighten the workload. Still, Fort Bend has nine vacancies for school psychologists – almost 20% of the department's staff. That's why Byrne says they're growing their own with an aggressive and paid internship program.
"It's a heavy weight but we are a really proactive and innovative group. We've constantly been trying to find ways to make our internship program better so that we can retain as many school psychologists that are out there," Byrne says.
It's not just a problem in Fort Bend ISD, one of the largest districts in the state. It's a challenge for districts across the state as Texas tries to fix serious problems with special education. In 2018, federal regulators ordered the state to stop capping the number of children who could receive services and to ensure all kids with special needs are identified.
Already, the Texas Education Agency has seen the number of students tested for special ed services soar by 56%, to 138,000 evaluations in 2018-19.
But no region in Texas has enough licensed school psychologists to meet national staffing recommendations and keep up with that kind of demand.
Statewide, there's only one licensed school psychologist for about 2,800 students, though national guidelines say there should be about one for every 500-700 students.
The shortage leaves current school psychologists with heavy caseloads, according to Stephanie Barbre, who works in the Lubbock area and is the incoming president of the Texas Association of School Psychologists.
"The only ones that got somewhat close were in the Austin and San Antonio areas," says Barbre, who's crunched the numbers for a statewide journal.
She says it's worst in East Texas where 31 districts don't have any licensed school psychologist on staff.
Barbre says burnout contributes to the shortage, especially since state rules say special ed testing has to be done in a certain timeframe. And the assessment doesn't mean a quick checking of boxes, she says. It can take 15-20 hours to complete, including observing the student, interviewing teachers and parents and administering actual tests – plus writing everything up in a final report that can be 15-50 pages long.
"But, at the same time, if you have evaluations stack up – we only get a certain amount of hours in the day – and, unfortunately, something's gotta give. So do you sacrifice the quality? Or do you sacrifice the quantity?" Barbre says.
In Fort Bend, southwest of Houston, the district is trying to keep up with both quality and quantity. One essential, Byrne says, is making sure new school psychologists have the tools and support they need.
In a recent internship class, after an hour of pouring over details on how to perform a special ed assessment, Byrne checks in with this year's class of seven interns.
"What can you walk away today and say, ‘I get that?'" she asks.
Graduate student Shameka Davis replies that the ins and outs of completing an evaluation are making more sense.
For six years, Davis has worked as a life-skills teacher in Alief, working with kids between kindergarten and fourth grade. While teaching, she went back to school at the University of Houston-Victoria to get her masters in school psychology. Now in her final internship year, Davis hopes to return to Fort Bend ISD next year as a full-time licensed specialist in school psychology.
"Looking ahead nine months into the future, I'm excited to see what an actual caseload looks like. Not just waiting on my supervisor, but you're in it, this what you're doing – how are you going to manage that?" Davis says.
But Davis and other interns in the class are still realizing how severe the workforce shortage is in their new profession, with on average one school psychologist for over 2,000 students in the Houston region.
"Coming in, it can be overwhelming. Just hearing those numbers, it's, ‘Oh my gosh, it's a lot of work!" Davis says.
Her fellow intern, Emily Zihlman, says it underscores why having mentors and a collaborative environment with families and schools is so important.
"There's a need so bad. There's not enough of us," says Zihlman. A former life-skills teacher and diagnostician, she's already seeing some students at a middle school.
"I have a student coming in pretty much every day saying there's a problem and I think about that when I'm gone," she says.
Administrators at the Texas Education Agency say they're well aware of the workforce shortage – not only for licensed specialists in school psychology, but also for other professionals who can assess children with disabilities.
"You can't just overnight create an evaluator," says Matt Montaño, the TEA's deputy commissioner of special populations.
He says the first step was getting more funding for evaluations, citing about $60 million in federal funding that the agency directed to districts for that. Plus, he says, the TEA invested $8 million to set up extra resources at its regional service center in San Antonio, again to support evaluations across the state.
Long term, Montaño says they're looking to coordinate more with colleges and universities to recruit more people to the profession. And the agency is looking into making the certification process more flexible, though that would need approval from the State Board of Education.
"What we don't want is we don't want to undermine the profession. We don't want to actually allow people to get into that level of a profession and not be fully equipped to be able to do it," Montaño says.
But some advocates say the Texas Education Agency isn't doing enough. Disability Rights Texas has recommended letting districts share staff through a cooperative-type model; holding a summit between the TEA and its sister agency, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board; and making it easier for retired evaluators to come back to campus and help ease the demand.
But those recommendations have been ignored, says Steven Aleman of Disabilities Rights Texas. And, he adds, it's not clear if the extra support at the San Antonio service center has helped districts.
"We've not had a lot of transparency about how that program has worked, who has participated and if it really did truly solve the shortage problem," Aleman says. "I think that's where we speak about the frustrations with the process and kind of what has happened with the plan. That area of trying to support schools in the evaluation mode seems to have fallen short."
And Aleman says the need is urgent. He predicts at this pace, children with disabilities will wait even longer for testing and then the help they need.
"If we're having struggles still at sort of step one, [then] step two, step three of providing the appropriate programming and seeing the improved results are just that much further down the road," Aleman says.
In Fort Bend ISD, the shortage has put so much pressure on the district, that leaders say they may not be able to keep up with the demand, and they may have to provide make-up services to children who aren't evaluated within the state-mandated timelines, according to Deena Hill, the executive director of student support services.
Piling on more pressure, licensed specialists in school psychology have other roles on campus besides assessing children with disabilities, for example, checking in on kids already enrolled in special education.
Hill says Fort Bend is also struggling to hire other professionals who can work on special ed evaluations, such as diagnosticians and speech-language pathologists.
"At the end of the day, when you have X amount of evaluations that you have to do and you only have this many people, you have to do them the best that you can but you may be delayed," Hill says.
"If you are delayed, if you don't get them done in the required amount of time set by the state and the law, then you are in jeopardy for having to provide compensatory services, which is kind of a backlog."
Hill says Fort Bend is starting to see that kind of backlog this year and expects to see more in the future.
"All we can do is be very honest with the parents and say, ‘Look, we're going to do this as fast as we can. But if we are delayed, we will talk with you about it and we'll make up the services,'" Hill says.
Hill says the TEA provided a list of potential contract evaluators when it awarded grants to some districts last year. But that hasn't been helpful, she says, because those outside contractors were not actually available.
Many advocates, psychologists and administrators say the key to the workforce shortage lies on college campuses, though again there are challenges. One issue: A master's degree to become an LSSP is longer than a typical master's. It generally takes someone studying full-time three years to graduate. Another issue: Colleges often have small school psychology programs that don't always get much promotion to undergraduates.
In fact, Paloma Canel, a graduate student at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, says she didn't realize the profession existed until the fall of her senior year as an undergraduate, when her class had a session on careers.
"One group did a school psychology presentation and that's when I was like, ‘Oh! This could be it!'" Canel says. "I think it was just the combination of the psychology part that I love and just the learning component, the school component – just the fact that I could reach so many students."
Some of the future school psychologists in Fort Bend see a silver lining to the shortage.
"It makes me feel good that, hey, I'm getting in and helping where it's needed," Davis says. "It does make me feel good about what I'm doing and where I am."
And she'll have job security. Even if the district hires her entire intern class, they'd still have open positions.