The University of Texas at San Antonio is adding a doctoral degree program in school psychology, launching in fall 2023, at a time when schools are seeing an increased demand for licensed psychologists who specialize in working with children.

UTSA’s College of Education and Human Development doctoral program in educational psychology will be the first of its kind in the area, meeting a critical need for advanced training for students, said Victor Villarreal, educational psychology associate professor and advisor for the new program.

“There’s been a need for more doctoral graduates,” he said. “Also, there’s a huge mental health need. For many people, COVID has highlighted the mental health difficulties and needs of our students.”

Not only do K-12 schools need school psychologists to help students overcoming pandemic-related learning loss, but universities also need more doctoral graduates to fill faculty positions to train future school psychologists, Villarreal said. UTSA’s program means students no longer have to seek that level of training outside of San Antonio.

UTSA already offers a master’s degree in school psychology, but earning a doctoral degree will expand graduates’ employment opportunities and better enable them to help the students and families they work with, Villarreal said. Doctoral students must complete a one-year internship in a setting similar to where they want to work, such as a school, clinic or children’s hospital. They also must complete a dissertation.

Meghan Courtney, a school psychology graduate student, wishes UTSA offered the doctoral program when she enrolled four years ago. She could earn her doctorate degree after completing her master’s — the doctoral program is open to students with either a bachelor’s or master’s degree — but she is eager to continue working with students in schools.

“Having a doctorate in the field really opens up more doors,” she said. “I see where a doctorate and further education can really be of assistance in further understanding what kids are going through because you’re dealing a lot with emotional and behavioral problems that students are experiencing. Having that doctorate will help in interpreting more what could possibly be going on.”

Since August, Courtney has been working at El Dorado Elementary School in North East Independent School District, evaluating whether students need special education services that will enhance their ability to learn.

“It’s been a challenging first year due to a heavy caseload and the impact that the pandemic had on kids’ education when they returned to in-person learning,” she said. “If they have even the slightest bit of a learning disorder, it’s exacerbated by not receiving that in-person learning for a year, year and a half.”

Schools also may be receiving more referrals for special education services because parents spent more time working with their children while they were learning remotely, Courtney said. Parents may have noticed their children’s learning difficulties in that additional time they spent together.

Moreover, the increased need for school psychologists in Texas stems from the state’s history of penalizing school districts for providing special education services to more than 8.5% of their students, said Beth Jones, senior executive director in San Antonio ISD’s social, emotional and academic development office.

A 2016 Houston Chronicle investigation found the Texas Education Agency placed an arbitrary cap on the number of students receiving the services, which resulted in thousands being denied care to which they are legally entitled.

Jones said that’s just one aspect of school psychologists’ jobs. They also provide students with counseling to address behavioral and academic issues.

School psychologists are trained to recognize when students struggle behaviorally, such as when they have trouble making new friends or communicating well, Jones said. They then develop supports and interventions that will help students learn better and function better in schools. Providing school psychology students the ability to get hands-on experience in schools is vital to their education, she said. SAISD uses UTSA school psychology students as interns in certain schools.

“This is a way of giving them that real-life school experience and the opportunity to practice and hone their skills as practitioners,” she said.

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.