Jordan School District is hiring psychologists for every elementary school. It's an experiment the rest of Utah should watch closely.
Utah has built its most-bang-for-the-buck school system on not doing these kinds of things. We have one school nurse for every 4,500 kids, and few high schools have adequate counselors. Our philosophy has been to put every dollar into classrooms and take administrative/auxiliary positions down to the bare minimum.
Jordan, mostly a bedroom district with a small commercial tax base, has one of the lowest per-pupil expenditures among the 41 school districts. They aren't Park City. So their decision to spend money on this shows how schools are increasingly on the front lines in addressing family issues.
In fact, school psychologists are now so in demand that Jordan can’t fill all the positions. It’s starting with psychologists for a half day and counselors for the other half at each school. In justifying the move, Jordan officials say they are seeing rising anxieties among students, particularly financial anxieties.
It used to be conservative groups like the Eagle Forum would rise up when there was talk of schools taking on anything that wasn’t directly educational. But with seven suicides in the Herriman High School community in the past year, that hands-off ideology is looking more like a failure to act.
By staffing up in all 36 elementary schools, the district is committing to be there when crises arise. Most districts spread psychologists across multiple schools, if they have them at all. But the issues they address don't wait for appointments.
The hope is that the added support will give teachers more time to teach. It’s also reasonable to think that addressing students' psychological needs early could save money later on remedial education, discipline and other school expenses.
But it’s not realistic for Jordan to think this effort will pay for itself. If it is worthwhile, the benefits will be seen in larger society, not just the schools. Schools are in an excellent position to recognize and address mental health issues early, but we shouldn’t make schools take from classrooms to cover the costs.
Jordan needs to have the right metrics in place, and then Utah educators, parents and policy makers should analyze the results. If this becomes the norm, we could see a healthier population inside and outside schools. We also need to be prepared to pay for it.