By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor
Andy Nalepa was born and raised in Ann Arbor. He attended Abbot, Forsythe, and Pioneer, where he played soccer, baseball, and hockey. After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Michigan State University, he moved back to the Ann Arbor area to work as a youth counselor in Livingston and Washtenaw counties. Through this experience, along with working as a job coach in the area, Nalepa became interested in school psychology where he was able to blend his passion for providing academic, social, and behavioral support to students.
Nalepa attended Loyola University of Chicago to earn his educational specialist degree in school psychology. He was hired by the Ann Arbor Public Schools just before the 2005-2006 school year and has worked in several different schools. He has been assigned to Skyline High School since it opened it 2008.
Nalepa is passionate about providing school-based mental health support and services for students, specifically, providing coping strategies and treatment to students affected by anxiety, depression, and trauma. He has been actively involved in working with district support staff and the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry to implement cognitive behavioral therapy groups (TRAILS) at Skyline and has been a member of both the district and building crisis response team. Nalepa has helped develop a peer to peer mentorship program and works with a multidisciplinary evaluation team to complete assessments to determine the appropriate eligibility and services to students under consideration for IEP and 504 plans.
Nalepa lives in Ann Arbor with his wife of 16 years, Alicia, daughters, Morgan, 13, and Emerson, 9, along with their dog, Oliver. He ended up settling in the same neighborhood he spent his elementary and middle school years. His parents continue to live in Ann Arbor are active and supportive grandparents. Nalepa enjoys supporting his daughters’ love of field hockey and soccer, attending MSU athletic events, and enjoying the Ann Arbor community. He likes to stay active by playing hockey, softball, soccer, biking, and swimming.
If you had just one message for the students of Skyline High School, what would it be? Make time for self-care! There are so many demands on the time of high school students whether its homework, part-time jobs, clubs, sports, volunteer work, social commitments, or family responsibilities. It is vital that teens have downtime and engage in activities that support positive mental health.
Has your job gotten harder in the past few years? I don’t think my job has gotten harder but I do think it’s changed. My job has become much more focused on student mental health, and less of the traditional “testing” that dominates many school psychologists time. Administering assessments and interpreting evaluation results continue to be a large part of the job, however, I prefer to focus on providing intervention for students and working to break down barriers for students to achieve success.
Describe an average workday: Every day is different! It is often filled with preparing for and attending IEP/504 meetings, checking in with students, facilitating group meetings, consultation with parents, teachers, and administrators, and providing behavioral support. Things move quickly and there is a need for a lot of collaboration with other support staff. There are many days where I have the day completely planned out and something comes up and I have to shift gears. The unique environment of having 1500 teenagers under one roof lends itself for the constant need to support students for many different reasons.
What’s the happiest part of your day? I enjoy getting out and walking the building to check in with students and teachers. I try and do this at least a few times a day, particularly, after sitting for a while. This helps me refocus and also allows me to come into contact with students that I may need to see or staff that I need to collaborate with. I enjoy my colleagues and the way we support one another- we really function well as a team.
What inspired you to become a school psychologist? Honestly, I kind of fell into it. School psychology is not a well -known profession and I often get questions about what I do and how I am different from a guidance counselor. While working at the Washtenaw County day treatment program, I was exposed to a lot of different ‘helping professions’, social work, family counseling, clinical work, advocacy and found that I liked working with students in the school but didn’t necessarily want to become a teacher. So I thought school psychology would be a good blend of my experiences and would allow me to make the most impact on the lives of young people.
Can you talk a bit about why Skyline hopes to implement TRAILS? Yes, we identified the need for increased mental health support here at Skyline back in 2012-2013. We were seeing recurring problems with students experiencing high levels of anxiety, depression, and referrals to psychiatric emergency. We are lucky to have an administration here that is proactive about providing therapeutic support for students and connected with U of M. We began implementing CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) in the schools during the 2013-2014 school year which was later renamed TRAILS and included training, coaching, and consultation to implement evidence-based practices to support students struggling with mental illness. We have been running groups here ongoing for the past five years. We needed a structured, evidence-based way to address the mental health needs in the building, and this has provided that.
What do you know about teenagers that you didn’t know when your career began? Teenagers are especially adept at quickly assessing whether you are someone they can trust and will be in their corner. Consequently, a lot of my job involves developing relationships with students. I take pride in having a quiet space where students can come for support. There are so many different social, academic, and environmental pressures that teenagers are faced with, it is important they have a minimum of one adult that they can confide in.
How do you show school spirit? I like to attend as many school activities as possible including sporting events, and performing arts. I do this not only because it helps with school culture, but I really enjoy the variety of talent that our student body displays.
What is the most rewarding part of your job? My goal is that every student I come in contact with leaves in a better place than where they started. The reward for me is to see these small successes and to have a positive impact on students.
Does the job ever seem overwhelming? The job does get overwhelming at times and requires a lot of flexibility. The range of different things you were faced with on a daily basis requires constant learning and honing my skills, I also work long hours with a lot of report writing and paperwork occurring at home. However, I work with fantastic teachers, administrators and support staff which makes the job easier. I try and keep a healthy work/life balance and keep a healthy perspective. Burnout is common for school psychologists and education in general, so I take time for self -care and often need some down time after a long day.
How do you spend your summers? I spend time at the pool with my family, traveling, and coaching. The summer often is a time of reflection and preparation for the next school year as well as researching and training. I also really value my time to be able to do the day to day stuff and just be a dad.