College of Education program will address pandemic setbacks in K-12 schools

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Chris Richards/University of Arizona

A new grant will allow the University of Arizona College of Education to help three school districts in central Arizona better support children who may have fallen behind during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The $2.3 million from the Arizona Department of Education will go to the college's School Psychology Graduate Program, based at the UArizona Chandler location. The money is part of the state's third phase of funding to support school districts in the aftermath of the pandemic.

With the funding, the program's faculty, staff and graduate students will train school psychologists to help children recover from pandemic setbacks, particularly with regard to learning math and building social skills. The program will launch in the fall and run for at least two years at three school districts in the Phoenix area: Mesa Public Schools, Florence Unified School District and the Tempe Elementary School District. It is expected to reach 5,000 students at six to 10 schools.

Marsha Spencer

Marsha Spencer

The program will prioritize students from low-income households, a group that was disproportionately affected by the pandemic as most students turned to remote learning, said Marsha Spencer, associate professor and assistant director of the School Psychology Graduate Program in Chandler and the grant's principal investigator.

The grant, she added, offers a unique opportunity to accomplish three goals: bring research about K-12 education directly to schools, give children academic and social support, and provide valuable hands-on experience for graduate students to use in their own careers as school psychologists.

"There's a lot of high quality research out there on K-12 education, and there's a big gap between research and practice. It's hard to see that gap impacting the lives of Arizona students and not do something about it," Spencer said. "We will have graduate students out there taking these best practices to schools all around the state."

Experts, including those at UArizona, have said students who missed out on academic and social learning during the pandemic would require years of personalized attention to catch up.

The hope with the new program, Spencer said, is to "plant the seed" for other districts across Arizona to start similar programs using research-based practices.

Spencer and her team will use materials from two organizations, the SSIS Collaborative and SpringMath, as they train school staff. The SSIS Collaborative creates training programs to help children build social and emotional skills; SpringMath makes similar training programs for helping students master and retain math concepts.

"Bringing our research and expertise to school districts across Arizona is a crucial part of our mission as a land-grant university, and I am grateful to the state for the funding support to make this work possible," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "I am proud of the work Dr. Spencer and her team are doing, and I look forward to seeing this program grow even further."