Role of guidance counselors forgotten in reform debateby Michael Caputo, Minnesota Public Radio
Studies suggest that one reason some high school students fail to achieve is the lack of school counselors -- people who can recognize the warning signs that can lead to academic trouble. Minnesota's counselor-to-student ratio is one of the highest in the nation.
St. Paul, Minn. — When Betty Jo Braun started working as a guidance counselor 22 years ago, she served high school students for the Cleveland Public Schools, a district southwest of the Twin Cities.
Braun is now the guidance counselor for all of the roughly 450 students in the district. That means counseling children from kindergarten up through high school. She also hosts a homeroom session for a group of seventh graders, and she is the testing coordinator for the school.
Braun will tell you she's overworked at times, and continually trying to manage her many tasks.
"I did more personal counseling when I began," said Braun. "I'm changing hats constantly."
School counselors like Braun say the lack of counselors has an effect on student performance at a time when the emphasis is on student achievement.
Braun knows some people see her position as a frill. But she says counselors are essential, and cites the case of a boy who visited her in early April.
The student was depressed and dealing with family strife at home. He sought out Braun for advice. Braun said that without being able to talk out these personal problems, this student would never be able to focus on learning.
"Schools need that piece that helps kids be emotionally ready for the day," Braun said. "If you are thinking about whether you are hungry, or had a fight with mom on the way to school, or had a fight with your boyfriend, you will be less focused on the job at hand. That's our job."
It's not just school counselors who make a correlation between their work and student performance. A study in 2005 by the Educational Testing Service, a New Jersey-based nonprofit agency that researches education, looked at rising dropout rates and cited the scarcity of school counselors as a problem.
"The role of guidance counseling has largely been ignored in the education reform movement of the past two decades," the report states. The authors call for much more study to quantify the effect student counseling has on academic performance.
In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's Workforce Development Council on improving education and employment for at-risk children also cited the lack of guidance counselors as a concern.
The task force's 2006 report pointed out that Minnesota has one of the highest counselor-to-student ratios in the nation.
Across all grades, Minnesota has the second highest counselor-to-student ratio in the nation, 792-1, according to the American Counseling Association.
U.S. Department of Education statistics say Minnesota has the 11th highest ratio of students to counselors on the high school level -- 297 students for each counselor. That compares to the national average of 229-1.
There are about 1,050 school counselors, based on full-time equivalent numbers, in Minnesota schools. In order to come close to meeting the national standard for all grades, the state would have to more than double the number of counselors, according to a bill pending at the Legislature.
Counselors who have to serve more students have less time with each student, they say. In some cases only the student who comes to the counselor for help gets assistance, according to Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.
Ricker says that leaves out many students who don't seek out the counselor for help with social problems or to get a bead on where the student should attend college or find a job.
"With a ratio that gets up to 500 (students) to one (counselor), you're lucky if there is any college discussion at all," said Ricker.
Ricker said finances are behind the lack of guidance counselors. School districts strapped for cash will first look to cut support services like school librarians, psychologists and the school counselor.
Some guidance counselors believe their role isn't well understood.
"Individually the counselors are appreciated in their buildings," said Colleen Baldrica, president-elect of the Minnesota School Counselors Association. "But on the outside, I don't see that the roles school counselors play are respected."
The former head of the state counselors professional group sees it another way.
"We have had a misrepresentation that all we are is vocational," said Kitty Johnson, past president of the Minnesota School Counselors Association. "But we work to help the student achieve by getting the student ready to achieve."
The lack of available time makes it tough for counselors to make their cases to parents and school boards.
"I can write the report that quantifies what I do," says Betty Jo Braun of the Cleveland School District. "But if I have someone like that boy knocking on my door when I'm writing it, I'll set that aside."
Advocates for increasing the number of school counselors in Minnesota have long tried to get more funding from the state.
The Minnesota School Counselors Association has lobbied for state legislation that would create provide enough school counselors to lower the student to counselor ratio to 250-1. That standard, recommended by the American School Counselors Association, has been accepted by some states.
But Minnesota government hasn't agreed to that standard, primarily because of the cost, said Baldrica, president-elect of the MSCA.
This year the tactics have changed. Instead of lobbying for a ratio for student counselors, the MSCA has called for increasing aid to all student support service personnel, including psychologists and librarians.
The measure would allow school districts to apply for aid that would help fund newly hired support service personnel. There remains life in this bill. The concept has been rolled into the K-12 funding bill that passed the House in April.