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UW-La Crosse program offers teachers pathway to become school psychologist without leaving the classroom

With special focus on attracting rural teachers, new online graduate program is first of its kind in Wisconsin

Lockers at a high school.
Matt Rourke/AP Photo

Officials behind a new program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse hope to make it easier for teachers in rural school districts to become school psychologists.

The graduate program is the first of its kind in Wisconsin and one of only three online training programs designed for full-time teachers in the country, according to a university press release.

Rob Dixon, director of UW-La Crosse’s School Psychology graduate program, said the idea for creating the online track came after years of hearing from teachers in the state’s rural school districts who were interested in pursuing a career as a school psychologist, but didn’t feel able to complete the in-person graduate program.

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“They simply can’t pick up their family and move down to an institution like (UW-La Crosse) to take the programming,” Dixon said. “There are other opportunities like special ed directors, where there’s programs that they could do online, but really having something for school psychologists just was not happening.”

He said the classes will be asynchronous, meaning students can choose when to complete them, and students will take a few credits at a time, making it easier for a teacher who is working full-time.

Kim Kaukl, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, said specialty positions like school psychologists and social workers are often the hardest for rural school districts to fill. That makes it hard for children and their families to get the help they need.

“It usually falls on the school counselors (to provide services), but they aren’t specifically trained in those areas. So what they try to do then is help kids and their parents find outside agencies,” Kaukl said. “There’s such a shortage of those even. I know talking with some of my members up in the northeastern part of Wisconsin, if they have to go to a private service out there, sometimes it’s a two-, three-hour drive.”

He said recruiting rural teachers to become school psychologists is complicated by the fact that these districts are also experiencing a shortage of teachers. But he said the COVID-19 pandemic and all of the changes it’s caused for students has amplified the need for mental health resources in school.

Because the program is entirely online, Dixon said the courses will be taught by actual school psychologists. He said that decision was made in part because current UW-La Crosse faculty were already feeling stretched and couldn’t take on new classes and students.

“That really sparked a number of individuals to kind of say, ‘You know, this is something that I want to give back to the profession and impact the next generation of school psychologists.’ So, I’m just really pleased at the number of people that have stepped forward,” Dixon said.

He said instructors are currently going through their own training to become effective online instructors. UW-La Crosse is currently accepting applications and hopes to select the first students in April. Classes are planned to start in July.

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