Chavez Phelps never expected to be back at Indiana State University after graduating in 2011 with a PhD in school psychology.
But when he was ready to delve into teaching and research six years later, he left his native New Orleans to return to his alma mater with years of field experiences to impart on his students.
“I really value the experiences and supportive environment that we offer students and think we have such a great training clinic on campus for our students so they get real experiences working with clients from the community,” Phelps said. “I wanted to be a part of all of that again and I thought I had something to add to what I received as a student.”
Phelps attended Indiana State from 2005 to 2011 before returning to New Orleans prior to graduating to do his required internship with LSU Allied Health Sciences Center and finish his dissertation.
“What I really appreciated about the school psychology program was the well-rounded experiences that you receive as a student and felt that it prepared me as an up-and-coming school psychologist in New Orleans,” he said. “New Orleans was opening up a lot of charter schools at the time and school psychologists were being used in ways they were not accustomed to in New Orleans, being directors of therapeutic programs and running special education programs. I thought my training (at Indiana State) really prepared me to be able to do that.”
Phelps has extensive experience in public policy work, being in private practice, running a therapeutic program and working in juvenile correctional facilities.
“When I was a director of therapeutic programs in New Orleans, I felt like we were always missing something, a missing link and I started to really hear what students were saying and not saying,” he said. “A common thread I found is that a lot of them had experienced some form of trauma and it led to my interest and how we support children who have been traumatized because we know childhood trauma is linked to outcomes with long-lasting impact into adulthood, like a higher risk of heart disease, cholesterol, blood pressure, early death and adults engaging in risky behaviors, like alcohol and drugs. It is a public health matter that we support children so they can grow up to be productive adults and not continue to have to deal with the impact they experienced as children.”
Phelps has long been an advocate for making education work for all children and knew he wanted to be a psychologist and wanted to work with children. But it wasn’t until he was watching a televised New Orleans school board meeting that he realized where his passion would lead him.
“There was a lady once who stood up at one of the meetings I was watching and she was advocating that every school should have a school psychologist,” he said. “It led me to do undergraduate research and an independent study with a school psychologist and we presented our research at a state conference. As a result, I knew this was the field I wanted to pursue.”
Phelps worked in a juvenile correctional facility providing educational services, assessments and counseling. After working in an adolescent mental health hospital, he spent two to three years working in two alternative high schools, where he served as a dean of students for one of the high schools and a school psychologist for both of the high schools.
“These were students who were over age and under credit and they came to the table with some additional needs. I had to take a very different approach because they were mostly young adults, ages 18 to 21,” he said. “The reality was we weren’t dealing with the typical population. I spent a year as the director of special education for both of those high schools, as well. I really tried to get them to advocate for themselves as budding adults.”
After serving as director of a therapeutic program for two years for students in grade K-8 who were exhibiting extreme social and emotional difficulties, Phelps switched networks to serve as a consultant for a network start social-emotional classrooms.
“I also did some public policy work with the Louisiana Public Policy Institute to help schools streamline behavioral health services by creating policies, applications and documents to use in the referral process and would streamline the process,” he said. “I also had a part-time private practice for three years where I saw clients in the evening for testing, primarily seeing children with anxiety and depression. Then I was president of the Louisiana School Psychological Association in between all that as well.”
His array of work experiences drew him more into the field and into his research interest in childhood trauma. Since coming to Indiana State, Phelps has used his knowledge to conduct trainings for East Chicago Public Schools and Vigo County School Corporation, where he and he and four graduate students are using a grant from State’s Center for Community Engagement are implementing a school-based trauma intervention program.
“I thought I had something different I could add to Indiana State’s program, which is an experience-based program,” he said. “Not only are students getting the information from the textbook, but I show them how I apply that information in the field when I was a practicing school psychologist or ways I had to make modifications because I was working with real people from various cultural groups. I’m a huge advocate for social justice, so I really train and support my students in understanding how we can use our training to be of service to others who are disenfranchised, whether it’s students of color or students with disabilities.”