But when he learned about the profession – through Internet searches as a college student at the University of Mississippi – he was sold. “Once I found out what it was and what school psychologists could do, I fell in love with it.”
Psychologists play an important role in K-12 schools. They support students with their mental health, help prevent bullying and promote conflict resolution among students. They are often the only person in an entire school trained to assess a student’s behavioral, emotional, and academic needs. A key component of this is assessing whether a student has a disability.
And yet there is a clear mismatch between the demographics of school psychologists and the student population they serve. According to survey data from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), more than 85% of school psychologists are white, while most K-12 public school students are not.
The exact number of black male school psychologists is difficult to determine, but NASP estimates that they make up less than 1% of psychologists in US public schools.
Other groups, including Asian Americans and Hispanics, are also underrepresented. But, some experts are particularly concerned about the lack of black male psychologists. Black children, especially boys, are more likely to be disciplined at school, forcibly handled by the police, and referred to special education services.
“The representation of a black male professional in a school building, it’s almost priceless,” says Bobby Gueh, a professor in the Department of Counseling and Psychological Services at Georgia State University.
And it’s not just black boys who benefit. “It affects the whole school,” he says.
The history of special education may be turning people away from school psychology
Federal law guarantees students with disabilities the right to a “free appropriate public education,” and school psychologists play a key role in evaluating what “appropriate” means. For any student, this may mean occupational therapy, counseling, or spending time with a paraprofessional. School psychologists also help make calls about whether to place students in separate special education classrooms.
For decades, black students have been disproportionately referred for special education services. The National Center for Learning Disabilities finds that black students are 40% more likely than their peers to have a learning disability or a disability, including intellectual disability. They are also more likely to be labeled as “emotional disturbance,” a label advocates have long criticized as stigmatizing.
“Representation is important,” said Celeste Malone, associate professor of school psychology at Howard University. “What does it mean to have predominantly white children working with predominantly children of color in a racist society?”
He believes that the history of special education may discourage blacks from pursuing school psychology as a career.
“It can be hard to reconcile wanting to be in a profession and wanting to support kids who look like you,” she explains, explaining the role school psychology has played in “special education assessment systems.”
Malone, who is also president of NASP, noted that at some historically black colleges and universities, psychology departments do not direct their students to school psychology because of the field’s “historical legacy.”
Black men don’t always feel like there’s a place for them in education
Another challenge, several experts told NPR, is that black men often shy away from education as a career.
“The conversation that most black guys are having is ‘You need to go into a field that makes a lot of money,'” says Gueh, of Georgia State.
McCallum, a school psychologist in Mississippi, agrees: “I don’t think men think there’s a place for them in education.”
She discovered school psychology after volunteering at a Boys & Girls Club while in college and realized she wanted a career where she could support young people. A Google search led her to school psychology, which came as a surprise to her family.
“It was kind of like, ‘Why would you go into this when you can pursue something else?’ ” he said. “I think the perception is, if you’re going to go to college and you’re trying to take care of your family and do those kinds of things, you might as well go into another field.”
A solution may lie in targeted recruitment
With a dire shortage of black men in a field that desperately needs them, some leaders are working on solutions.
NASP is expanding its exposure project, in which school psychologists of color give presentations to undergraduate and high school classes in an effort to find recruits. “If you see more people from different backgrounds, and recognize that we’re all doing the same thing, I think that can really change how we look at the field,” McCallum says.
Some school psychologists are focusing on changing the practice of the profession. Byron McClure, a school psychologist in Houston who advocates for more representation in the field, says that to bring in more black males, there needs to be a big shift in the role of school psychologists.
Instead of relying on assessments to single out certain students in special education, McClure said, school psychologists should use their skills more broadly. For example, developing restorative justice policies or helping to design more culturally responsive curricula.
All this requires more resources. NASP recommends one school psychologist for every 500 students. But most school districts don’t even come close to that goal. With such limited resources, school psychologists spend most of their time evaluating special ed.
McClure launched a networking and recruiting agency that he hopes will help increase the number of black male school psychologists.