chandrai jackson-saunders

Photo credit: National Association of School Psychologists

When Chandrai Jackson-Saunders was introduced as the National School Psychologist of the Year in February 2020, virtual learning, social distancing, and face masks were not yet public school staples. Much has changed since then, making Jackson-Saunders’ three decades with District of Columbia Public Schools emphasizing social-emotional learning, parental engagement, and community partnerships even more valuable.

Recognized by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) for excellence in delivering school psychological services, Jackson-Saunders is the first African American woman to win the award in its 20-year history. She spoke with ASBJ’s Michelle Healy about her profession’s work supporting the whole child. (This interview was edited for clarity and length.)

What drew you to school psychology?

I was always interested in human behavior and why people did what they did. I see school psychology as a way to marry a love for the art of education and supporting children and families with the psychology of learning. My mother taught middle school and high school math and was passionate about her work and not just about teaching. I used to wonder why a math teacher took toothbrushes, toothpaste, underwear, and socks to school. Watching her made me understand how you must meet the basic needs of learners before you can expect them to be open to learning.

NASP recommends one school psychologist for every 500 students, but the national average is much higher. How do you make those numbers work?

It’s one thing if you’re assigning school psychologists to test, evaluate, and determine eligibility for special education and nothing else. But those numbers fall woefully short when it comes to educating and supporting the whole child, including the family, and putting in place programs to help every child, both the diagnosed and the undiagnosed. When you use school psychologists in the manner that they have been trained, you find a vast array of services that they can provide. When they attempt to provide those services, however, that’s when the shortages are most concerning.

How much harder is your work during the pandemic?

It has certainly made it more challenging but not impossible. The first goal is always to remain connected with children and their families to keep them engaged in learning. If I’m not connected, it’s difficult to know their needs and figure out how we’re going to get through whatever barriers they’re facing. You’re checking in regularly by phone, text, other electronic communications. If we have not heard from them in two to three days or have not seen a student in the virtual space, we ramp up efforts to connect.

What is your “prevention over trauma” focus?

Most of us are really good at trauma, and by that, I mean we know how to find the bleeding and try to stop it. I want to talk about getting there before the bleeding begins. Let’s put the energy, time, and effort into building up children and families, as opposed to having to respond to the trauma they face. Is that easy? Absolutely not.

Around NSBA

A group of high school students paint on canvases during an art class.

2023 Magna Awards Grand Prize Winners

School districts rethink and reinvent education for their students, staff, and communities.