Dan Farrell, Class of 2005
My name is Dan Farrell. I graduated from RIT in 2005. I am a school psychologist in the Peoria Unified School District #11. Peoria Unified School District, located in Peoria/Glendale, Arizona, serves over 37,000 students in 30 elementary and eight high schools. It is the third largest school district in Arizona and continues to grow. They have been building and opening a new elementary or high school about every other year to meet the needs of a growing population.
I came to Peoria as an intern. At the time I was making the decision to pursue an internship in Arizona, it snowed every single day for the whole month of January in Rochester. The fact that they pay about twice as much for interns as in New York made my decision that much easier. I e-mailed many of the districts here in Phoenix and had one of my first telephone interviews with Peoria. I could tell right from the start that I would like the district. The Director of Special Education and the lead psychologist seemed personable and supportive. I accepted the offer a few days later and started making plans to get out of the cold of upstate New York and make my way to the valley of the sun.
I was placed at one school with the lead psychologist for the district as my supervisor. The school, Cotton Boll Elementary, luckily had a seasoned and experienced special education team. I relied on them a great deal in the first few months. I also realized, thanks to our program at RIT, how well prepared I actually was. I remember my first staff meeting. My principal introduced me and said “he is just an intern so take it easy on him, he doesn’t know anything yet.” I remember thinking, “Hey, I know stuff!” I think going off to internship, we do know more than we realize. After working with psychologists that were trained at different programs from around the county, I could see what a great program RIT has. It is a good balance of assessment, consultation and counseling. Believe me, other programs do not have that balance and do not prepare their students as well as RIT. It gave me a solid foundation to handle so many different challenges and situations that come up on internship and beyond.
I stayed on at Peoria after my internship year. I have two schools that I am responsible for. Cotton Boll Elementary, where I started, is like a second home to me. Being my first school, it probably always will be. There are about 1000 students in grades K through 8. I have three resource teachers with about 75 students with learning disabilities split between them. Every school also has a behavior specialist to work with students with behavior disorders. Of course, we also have an Speech/Language Pathologist (SLP) and an Occupational Therapist (OT) and Physical Therapist (PT) assigned to each school. Santa Fe Elementary is my other school. There are about 900 students with two resource teachers and about 50 students with learning disabilities between them. Both schools are in a rather low socio–economic status (SES) area compared to other parts of the district. There is also a large population of English Language Learners (ELL) students and Spanish speaking families. This took some adjustment and learning some new skills on my part. I went to several ELL conferences about assessment and did some research. I had to think about how ELL and cultural issues impact my testing results so we can make good special education decisions. It sometimes does complicate things.
As with most other states, Arizona is implementing Response To Intervention (RTI) across the state. It is a voluntary program but districts are encouraged to pilot the program in some of the schools. The district is currently piloting RTI in two schools. Cotton Boll happens to be one of them. I think it is because the staff at Cotton Boll are generally open and supportive of new things. It was also because of my recent training at RIT. I have the knowledge and skills to help bring this to my district. From these experiences, we have presented to other schools in the district and hopefully we will be able to expand RTI in future years.
There are a few differences between New York and Arizona with respect to some of their policies and procedures. Recently there was support to make it legal for teachers to carry guns on campus. However, that did not pass in the legislature for K-12 campuses. Another difference is the fact that the department of education believes that school based counseling can be provided by anyone that has a relationship with the student, including a teacher or a para-professional. I, as well as many school psychologists, believe that this is not right and that counseling requires more training than what they have. Hopefully Arizona will catch up in there thinking and practices compared to the northeast.
The school psychologist role in Arizona is largely testing. There is a shortage of psychologists here so often this is by necessity. When you have two or three schools, all you have time for is initial referrals and re-evaluations. There is also quite a bit of paperwork that we are responsible for. But there are opportunities to expand your practice and collaborate with some of your other colleagues at the school. You can co-facilitate some groups, like for anger management and social skills. There are many professional development opportunities to offer in-services to your school or the district. If you plan and complete a special project during the year that is based on student achievement, you get additional money, something like $2500, added in your paychecks the following year. It encourages everyone to go that extra step and branch out of your usually routine in order to benefit students.
Like in all different states and different districts, there is good and bad to working in Arizona. Overall, we love it here. The weather is great. It is a unique part of our country. Yes, it gets a bit hot in the summer. But it's a dry heat! I rather stay in the pool or in the AC for 3 months in the summer than be in NY and have to spend 6 months inside because of the snow and cold. You can’t shovel sunshine! Jobs are plentiful and the salary is pretty good. I feel that my experiences in New York and at RIT prepared me well to contribute to a growing school district and a growing community. If you are interested in more information about Arizona or are thinking of relocating, don't hesitate to contact me. I am always willing to help. email@example.com