Jeanne Engerson, a UW-Whitewater School Psychology Program Alum, is the recipient of the Wisconsin School Psychologists Association’s 2018 “School Psychologist of the Year” award. Jeanne was recognized for her compassion, leadership, and dedication to her work at Phoenix Middle School in the Delavan-Darien School District, where she established her roots as a practicum student during the 2008-2009 school year. Jeanne speaks fluent spanish and wanted her skills to be put to use, so she was excited to do her practicum in a district where about 20% of students are English Language Learners. Little did she know that this is where she would stay. According to a statement from the district, Jeanne’s skills during that practicum year were quickly recognized and she was hired as a full-time intern the following year.
Beginning her journey to the field of school psychology with a desire to work with children, Jeanne was reluctant to move to Phoenix middle school, leaving behind the elementary school where she began. However, her supervisor was insistent she belonged at the middle school level, and now five years later she cites this transition as a highlight in her professional career. Phoenix appears to have benefited from her impact over the past few years as well. In 2012-2013, the school’s DPI Report Card was just barely above the threshold for a three-star accountability rating of “meets expectations”. Since then, the school’s scores have dramatically increased with a 2017-2018 rating of five stars that “significantly exceeds expectations”. Several colleagues credit some of this success to Jeanne’s work, particularly with regard to her guidance in analyzing academic and behavioral data, planning interventions, and monitoring their effectiveness.
Besides this success, Delavan-Darien has had a challenging year. A failed referendum in the spring of 2018 left the district with one closed elementary school and 40% less staff. Class sizes are now up to 38 students and 5th grade has joined the middle school, which has presented challenges of its own. The circumstances under which Jeanne was given this award might help to explain why she so humbly and adamantly commends her coworkers, saying, “You’re only as great as the people you work with”. However, colleagues would likely say that being a team-player is just part of her nature. In her nomination, she was described as a skilled facilitator who ensures everyone’s voice is heard and was praised for her dedication to students and staff. She is a true leader in the school, driving their RTI, PBIS, and special education teams, and promoting innovative and evidence-based practices, such as restorative justice, social-emotional learning, and trauma informed care.
Jeanne was nominated by her principal, who described her as a “boots on the ground employee”. When asked what this means to her, Jeanne said that unlike many school psychologists, you won’t find her in an office doing paperwork or report writing. Jeanne is passionate about maximizing the time she has with students, so she waits to do the “boring stuff” until she gets home. Instead, you’ll find her helping in the classrooms and at recess, counseling students, meeting with staff members, and even doing home visits, all things that she says school psychologists are qualified and able to do. She goes above and beyond to support her students and meets them where they are, whether that be at school or home. On multiple accounts, when students have refused to come to school due to mental crisis, Jeanne is the one who persists. She has used graduated exposure to get students to school, sitting outside of their bedroom door, eating breakfast with them in their kitchen, driving them around the school parking lot, and eventually just sitting together in her office until they feel comfortable enough to ease back into classes. This takes time, but Jeanne is patient.
When asked why she does this, Jeanne said that not all kids have someone who believes in them, so her persistence could be the only reason that a student perseveres. She also believes that you don’t really know someone until you have been in their home and calls upon other school psychologists to visit their students. In addition, Jeanne believes that spending time with students is what makes her good at her job, stating that she doesn’t need to ask teachers what their class is doing in math because she already knows from being in class with them. Knowing students personally improves her ability to identify students that are struggling and choose interventions that fit their unique needs. When school psychologists don’t know their students in this capacity, she believes they are more likely to mistakenly choose interventions that are unsuitable for the individual child.
Jeanne’s advice for future school psychologists is to “always presume positive intentions”. She stated that schools are full of child advocates, but not everyone advocates for the same things or in the same way. By presuming positive intentions, she is more likely to attribute a colleague’s or a parent’s abrasive behavior to their strong desire to help a student. If school psychologists kept this in mind, she believes they would get further with their own goals. Furthermore, while Jeanne learned some very practical testing and intervention skills in the UW-Whitewater School Psychology Program, she insists the most valuable skills were time management and perseverance in the face of adversity, preparing her well for the challenges she encounters in her professional career. Specifically, she expressed gratitude for Dr. Christine Neddenriep, Dr. Tracey Scherr, and Dr. Jim Larson, who pushed her to become the exceptional school psychologist she is today.
One of the goals of UW-Whitewater’s school psychology graduate program is to prepare future professionals to be advocates for and providers of mental health services in Wisconsin’s elementary and secondary schools. The program’s alumni are striving toward this goal each and every day all around the State of Wisconsin. Since the beginning of 2017, four recent alumnae have been highlighted in the local news for their work as fierce advocates for the mental, emotional, and behavioral well-being of the students whom they serve. Jamie Harris, a school psychologist in the Edgerton School District and recent recipient of the Wisconsin School Psychologists Association’s School Psychologist of the Year Award, recognized a need to increase students’ social and emotional skills in order to be successful at school and beyond. In doing so, she partnered with other school personnel at Edgerton Middle School to bring the Second Step curriculum (not available at this time) to all students. For middle schoolers, this program focuses on providing students with the communication, coping, and problem-solving skills necessary to navigate the struggles of adolescence.
About an hour north, Allison Samb, a school psychologist at Westside Elementary School in the Sun Prairie Area School District, and the school’s social worker received grant funding from the Sun Prairie Education Foundation to screen all third and fourth grade students for symptoms of traumatic stress. Once identified, students who have experienced traumatic stress will participate in Bounce Back, an evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy group aimed at decreasing the physical and emotional symptoms of traumatic stress, as well as increasing coping skills and relaxation techniques to address that stress. Samb estimates that the grant will provide necessary mental, social, and emotional support to 50 students coping with traumatic stress over the next year.
Meanwhile, 2016 School Psychologist of the Year, Jessica Skaaland of the Oshkosh Area School District, continues to bring light to the extensive need for mental health services in schools but lack of resources within her district to sufficiently address those needs. To put it in perspective, the National Association of School Psychologists suggests that there be one school psychologist to every 500 to 700 students, while Skaaland reported serving about 1,400 students. Because of this, she reported having a limited capacity to build relationships with her students, provide counseling, partner with parents to discuss treatment options, and provide additional and necessary supports for classroom teachers. Despite this, Skaaland continues to be a vocal advocate for increasing the number of specialists prepared to support students in crises with significant mental health concerns by raising awareness through interviews with local news outlets, including the Sheboygan Press.
Similarly, at the stateline, Kaela Harteau, a school psychologist serving the School District of Beloit, champions more services and qualified staff to support the emotional and behavioral needs of students in Beloit. As frustrations amongst teachers and staff came to a head at a February town hall meeting regarding students’ increasing misbehavior and a lack of support for disciplining students, Harteau remained an advocate for addressing misbehavior using the district’s restorative justice practices along with enforcing their code of conduct, while also building capacity for providing the emotional and mental health supports that their students need. Since that February meetings, Harteau said that “moving forward, our district and school board are currently discussing increases in mental health providers and student services in our district. But they are also talking about trying to decrease class sizes by adding more teachers.”
As for UW-Whitewater’s school psychology program, the faculty will continue to train their graduate students to be leaders in the fight to bring more mental health services to public schools in Wisconsin with confidence that current and future graduates alike will continue to work to provide students with the supports necessary for their success in school and beyond.
Dr. Scherr presented at the 5th International Conference in School Psychology in DaNang, Vietnam. UW-Whitewater was recognized with a plaque as one of the institutional members of the Consortium to Advance School Psychology-International (CASP-I). Scherr delivered opening remarks at the conference, gave a workshop on working with young children who have experienced trauma, and won an award for her presentation on supervising novice practitioners who deliver mental health services in schools. According to Scherr, psychology is an emerging profession in Vietnam