ECISD creating counselor, diagnostician pipelines

Sep. 28—Stemming from a need for counselors and diagnosticians, Ector County ISD has set up pipelines with local and regional universities to grow their own.

"Right now, we have an agreement with UTPB for a diagnostician pipeline, and we are in the final stages, it hasn't been board-approved yet, but we're in the final stages of developing an agreement with Sul Ross, for diagnostician as well. So we'll have two ways in which we can certify diagnosticians, get them the credentials," Executive Director of Talent Development Ashley Osborne said.

A counseling pipeline also has been setup through Angelo State University, Executive Director of Counseling Chelsea Reyes said.

Osborne noted that the pipeline efforts are grant and foundation funded. The district is either trying to pay their salary for that internship year or their tuition and fees.

Executive Director of Guidance, Counseling and Wellness Chelsea Reyes said there are six elementary school counseling openings and two of those are the ones at Downing and Fly that have additional openings. Wilson & Young Medal of Honor Middle School and Bowie Middle School each have one.

Osborne said there are six employees in the counseling pathway and four that will be in the diagnostician pipeline.

Osborne said having several universities involved means ECISD can have multiple pathways so people can acquire credentials.

The district also pays for their bachelor's and master's degree.

"Chelsea actually did the legwork to review and meet with a lot of ... potential partners. Angelo State University just was the best fit for our needs. And they had experience in running a cohort model, which is what we were really interested in doing because that's just another layer of support for the candidates that are seeking that master's degree and certification," Osborne said.

Having a group of people taking the same track can help create a network, which she said offers more support.

Osborne said the courses are offered online.

Reyes said one of the reasons Angelo State was selected was their experience, but also that the program is online.

"... After year one of the program, they receive an intern certification. Once they receive the intern certification, we will be able to hire them on as school counselor interns to help fill some of the vacancies," Reyes said.

Interns are still going through their practicums.

"Part of their practicum is the requirement of the hours, counseling services, the mental health counseling piece. School counselors have teaching backgrounds so they're able to provide all of the other services as far as guidance lessons, responsive services, individual planning, but the mental health component really is what the internship is for," Reyes said.

Reyes said additional positions were added to the largest elementaries, two of which are EK Downing and Murry Fly.

Osborne said one of the barriers to becoming a counselor or diagnostician is finances.

"Us being able to provide support in terms of tuition and fees and then also the support of the cohort model ensures more that our team members will be more successful in their pursuit of that credential, whether it be a master's in counseling or what have you and that more people are able to pursue those opportunities because we removed the financial barrier. That's ... the trend that you'll see in all of our pipelines is compensation, or that financial aspect," Osborne said.

She added that they want to give counselors and diagnosticians a top-notch foundation because they don't just want people filling jobs.

"We want them to have high-quality preparation and be ready to take on that position before they actually do and then get them placed where they're the best fit," Osborne said.

Candidates also work with ECISD in job-embedded professional learning for a year to understand what it means to take on the counselor or diagnostician position, she added.

Reyes said they surveyed counselors to see where they attended college so they could find out what schools were feeding into ECISD.

"We interviewed the top three university programs that we had. I believe it was UTPB, Sul Ross and Angelo State. Those were the top three where our counselors were coming from ... I know a lot of the barrier for some people is the requirement that courses be in person. That was the reason that we also chose this one and then, again, the fact that they offered the intern certification was a benefit to the student and to us because if they want to counsel they want to begin sooner rather than later," Reyes said. "It's a two- year program, whereas some other programs might be two to three years."

Osborne said they are proud that their pipeline work involves departments from across the district. Misty Hiner is the special education supervisor for ECISD.

"We continually have vacancies in the diagnostician positions. Post-COVID, we've had a large influx of referrals for children to be tested for special ed, so to meet that need to try and make sure that they're all tested in a timely manner we needed more people, so that's where we discussed the need for the diagnosticians," Hiner said.

"The pipeline is to pay for their salary as they're an ARD facilitator, pay for their college classes to get them the degree. It pays for the certification test and then someone to be their mentor while they are an ARD facilitator. Once they become a certified diagnostician, we can move them into the vacancy positions that we have for diagnosticians. So our hope is that as an ARD facilitator they can conduct the ARDs at the campuses while the diagnosticians can continue to do the evaluations for the students," Hiner said.

ARD stands for Admission, Review and Dismissal. Hiner said every other state calls it an IEP meeting, but in Texas they call it an ARD meeting.

IEP stands for Individualized Education Program and Hiner said you address the IEP through the ARD meeting.

"There's required people for the ARD committee; that's your diagnostician or evaluation personnel, so that can be the diagnostician, or the ARD facilitator, a general ed teacher, special ed teacher, parent, and then an administrator for the campus. In addition to that, it depends on what services the kids are afforded like if they receive adaptive PE, then there's an adaptive PE person; anybody that does related services will also be in those meetings," Hiner said.

She added that there are five openings right now. This is her fifth year in her position and they have never been fully staffed with diagnosticians.

"Sometimes it's one or two vacancies, but we're always looking," Hiner said.

Asked if they can have students tested in a timely way right now, Hiner said they are working on it.

"There, again, has been such a huge influx. We are desperately trying to stay within timeline. We have not gone out of timeline yet," she added.

Typically, Hiner said, when there is a referral there isn't really a timeline to get it started.

"It's once the diagnostician has that referral then, when they ask the parent for consent to test, that's when the timeline starts usually," Hiner said.

Testing requests can come from the parents, teacher or the campus.

"Typically what's supposed to happen is that the campus recognizes there's a need; they start the response to intervention process. Through that process, they provide different tiers of instruction ... goals are created and progress is monitored. Then through that RTI process, if the interventions that they provide aren't working, then usually your referral is created to have that child tested," Hiner said. "That can be parent initiated; that can be campus initiated, it's whomever sees the need, which a parent can also request in writing to have their students tested."

Parents can request it verbally, but for documentation purposes, the department usually asks parents to put it in writing so they have that on file, Hiner said.

The diagnosticians are the ones that conduct the student evaluations.

"They're the ones to test to determine if they qualify, and if so how they qualify," she said.

Their umbrella includes the kids who qualify through special education, 504 and speech.

The Texas Education Agency website says Section 504 "requires that school districts provide a free appropriate public education to qualified students in their jurisdictions who have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities."

Autism is one of the ways students can qualify for special education services. For students that have suspected autism or emotional disturbance, Hiner said there are licensed specialists in school psychology that test those children.

They have discussed creating a pipeline for that position as well.

The district also needs speech therapists and is now contracting with outside agencies to offer virtual therapy to make sure the students meet their minute requirement.

"It depends on each student, based on their needs and how they qualify. Sometimes they see the speech therapist once a week, twice a week, and then the minutes just depend on what the speech therapists feel the sessions need to be. That's all based on student need. Same thing with kids with special education. The services that they're provided on campuses is based on functioning levels, goals, weaknesses, areas that they have needs," Hiner said.