School counselors more available on mental health ‘front lines’

Good news for U.S. classrooms: School counselors aren’t being spread so thin. And while their numbers still fall well short of ideal, the gap is narrowing. A recent analysis shows that school counselors are responsible for 455 students on average – the lowest in three decades, but nearly double the recommended ratio of 250-to-1. 

“When we see school counselors sharing their impact, sharing their results, showing that they’re part of this school team … we see districts finding ways to not only keep school counselors, but to hire more,” says Jill Cook, an assistant director of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), of her organization’s findings. The association relied on U.S. Department of Education data from the 2016-17 school year for its analysis.

School counselors support students’ academic, career, and social-emotional development from kindergarten through 12th grade. Studies consistently show that the increased presence of school counselors correlates with positive student outcomes, including better academic performance. Advocates continue to push for more school counselors, along with comprehensive programs to ensure all children are reached.

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One movement, #RedforEd, ignited this year as a series of teacher strikes across the country. Besides calls for smaller class sizes and higher salaries, #RedforEd activists demanded an increase in support staff. School counselor Nadia Morales of Los Angeles High School joined the city’s teacher strike in January. 

Her union’s call for more school counselors, she told The Hechinger Report, was based on concerns about meeting the needs of the city’s minority student population.

“Every other day, we’ll have a kid come in and say, I want to kill myself,” Ms. Morales told Hechinger. “When that happens, everything stops. I have to be with that student.”

Rampant school shootings across the U.S. have heightened the discussion around mental health in schools. While school counselors don’t provide therapy, they are often a student’s first contact for mental health issues, as they can make referrals to appropriate resources. Ms. Cook says that psychologists and social workers, in addition to school counselors, are all critical personnel on “the front line.”

“They’re the ones who work with the student, they’re going to work with the staff about looking for warning signs, what to do when they’re concerned about a student,” says Ms. Cook. “These are the individuals who can work with families.”

There’s hope on the horizon: The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the number of school counselors will grow 13% by 2026 – twice the average rate for all occupations.

For now, most states have double the 250-to-1 ratio recommended by ASCA, but some are working to catch up. Virginia, for example, will invest $12 million in more school counselors. And those personnel must spend at least 80% of their time in direct counseling with students.

Alabama has made the greatest strides to improve school counselor availability. Since the 2015-16 school year, the state narrowed its student-to-counselor ratio by 15% when it hired 269 new school counselors.

The allotment of school counselors varies among states and districts, and most work in high schools. ASCA reports that only 23 states mandate elementary school counselors, but funding isn’t always guaranteed. Most states let school districts dictate school staffing needs. School counselors in Alabama are specifically assigned to schools based on enrollment.

“In Alabama we’re very fortunate that it is mandated by law that student counseling exists, and that the support for both those positions and programs exist,” says Sean J. Stevens, education administrator for counseling and guidance at the state’s Department of Education.

No two days for a school counselor are alike. Mr. Stevens says an Alabama school counselor’s activities could range from individual sessions to small group counseling, covering topics as varied as grief, divorce, and military families.

“Our school counselors have to be everything to everyone at every moment,” he says. “While that expectation is overwhelming, this work is the most meaningful and helpful in our schools.”

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