Ana Novelli

The bilingual advantage

School psychology doctoral candidate helps bilingual students

October 25, 2017

You can count on your fingers the number of school psychology doctoral programs in the United States that offer a bilingual concentration. In Colorado, you just need one finger—and it would point to the CU Denver School of Education & Human Development (SEHD).

“There should be more programs like ours, because we have a huge need in our field,” said Associate Professor of School Psychology Bryn Harris, who teaches in SEHD’s School Psychology (PsyD) doctoral program and oversees the students in the bilingual concentration. “In our country, bilingual populations are often underserved and not understood. Research shows how poor their services are compared to other populations and the inequities that occur in public schools.”

The bilingual concentration at SEHD has been available since 2010, and the PsyD program was established in 2015. Each year several students take advantage of this rare opportunity. Ana Novelli is one of them.

The fight for fluency

Ana Novelli is not a native Spanish speaker. She grew up speaking English in Boulder and threw tantrums when her mother, who is Peruvian, tried to speak Spanish to her.

Later, she double-majored in Spanish and psychology at CU Boulder, studied abroad and lived in Peru to immerse herself in the language. Today, she is bilingual in English and Spanish, and she’s not letting it go.

“I’ve always wanted to work with Spanish-speaking populations, and the bilingual concentration is why I chose this PsyD program,” she said.

The program is open to bilingual speakers of any language in addition to English, though many of its students are Spanish-speaking. To earn the certification, students take additional courses, complete 250 practicum hours supervised by a bilingual school psychologist and pass the language proficiency evaluation.

“The quality of education here has been really amazing,” said Novelli, who has completed the certification and plans to earn her PsyD in May 2018. “I absolutely love the small cohorts. We go through all of our classes together and meet to talk about our practicums and internships, and the faculty really get to know us.”

A huge need in public schools

As she enters her fourth and final year of the PsyD program, Novelli has already served Spanish-speaking populations through two practicum experiences at elementary schools and an externship at a counseling center.

“CU Denver has a good reputation in the school psychology community in Denver,” Novelli said. “The school sites are really happy to have us.”

About one in five students in the Denver metro area is an English language learner (ELL), and there are not enough bilingual school psychologists to serve all of them. Bilingual school psychologists not only help ELL students get accurate assessments and proper academic placements, they also help students’ parents.

“Parents are so grateful when they realize you can speak their language and help them navigate our systems,” Novelli said. “It’s been so wonderful to be able to help these parents feel comfortable coming into their kids’ school.”

This fall, she has an internship at North Star Elementary in Thornton, where her Spanish-speaking supervisors will include SEHD alumna Tamina Quinto-Penkova, who serves on the school district’s bilingual assessment team. Quinto-Penkova was born in Mexico to a father from Mexico and a mother from the Czech Republic. Her family moved to the United States when she was 14, making her an ELL student in the U.S. school system.

“As an immigrant, I experienced a lot of things growing up that non-immigrants don’t experience,” she said. “It’s difficult to be an effective school psychologist if you don’t share a common language or understanding of a culture. I wish there were more school psychology programs like CU Denver’s.”

100 percent job placement

The field of psychology is growing quickly, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and there is a shortage of school psychologists, both in Colorado and the nation. Add to that the increasing ethnic diversity in U.S. cities, and CU Denver’s PsyD bilingual concentration program has a 100 percent job placement rate, Harris said.

“There is no shortage of school psychologist positions, and if you’re bilingual, you are in high demand,” Harris said. Each year, she receives inquiries from school district hiring managers offering hiring bonuses and other incentives for qualified bilingual school psychologists.

For Novelli, the program is working. In her current work at a local urban treatment center for youth who have experienced trauma, she said she can see a difference in how she interacts with kids from when she started working there in her second year of the program to now.

“It’s a hard degree, but it’s worth it,” Novelli said. “You’re going to get a job, and you’re going to help people.”