Farmington counselors Jen Venz and Jackie Brand like to say they are the “glue” that helps hold their busy school buildings together.
“Kids today don’t face the same things they faced 20 years ago,” said Brand, a counselor at Akin Road Elementary, noting that a growing number of students face economic or family problems that can hamper their studies. “They need more support.”
Their jobs require them to be not just counselors, but educators, advocates and sometimes social workers. They often provide resources and assistance students wouldn’t get in the typical elementary school classroom.
“These kids come to school with lots of baggage,” said Venz, a counselor at Farmington Elementary. “We are here to try to help them deal with it and be successful in the classroom.”
Venz and Brand are part of a small but growing breed of school counselors in Minnesota who work full time with elementary students. According to the latest available U.S. Department of Education data, there are only 128 such positions in the state.
That means Minnesota has the highest ratio of students to counselors at the elementary level of any state – there are 3,428 school students for every licensed counselor.
And Minnesota has one of the highest overall ratios of students to school counselors. There are 771 students for every professional, the federal data show.
The national K-12 average is 473-to-1 and the American School Counselors Association, an advocate for the profession, recommends a ratio of 250-to-1. Few states have ratios that low. Keith Hovis, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education, said the state doesn’t mandate ratios for school counseling positions and leaves hiring decisions to local officials.
The low number of counselors is often caused by tight budgets, said Alan Burkard, president of the American School Counselors Association and chairman of the counselor education graduate program at Marquette University in Milwaukee. When administrators are forced to cut staff, too often counselor positions are at risk.
“I think a big part of it has to do with the pressure on budgets,” Burkard said. “To a certain degree, and I don’t mean this to be derogatory to schools, but it is short-sighted.”
Strong school counseling, beginning in elementary and middle school, often translates into better student achievement and career readiness, Burkard said. Counselors are in the unique position to intervene with students at multiple levels including academics, social relationships and emotional well-being.
“What people typically think of with a school counselor is someone sitting in an office waiting for a student to show up,” Burkard said. “That is not today’s school counselor. They are out in the classroom using data to make decisions.”
As education becomes more individualized and academic success more essential to a career, educators and parents should embrace the assistance trained counselors can provide, Burkard said.
“The problem is, college readiness now starts in elementary school,” he said. “Kids who are not college ready don’t understand how academics can influence their career decisions. In today’s society, you have to be more on top of things academically.”
Minnesota school counselors have lobbied for more funding and better ratios but have seen only incremental improvement. Since 1995, the state has added only about 100 counseling positions statewide as it lost more than 15,000 students, which helped improve student-to-counselor ratios.
Nevertheless, some districts in the metro, such as Farmington, have added positions in the lower grades with hopes of improving academic outcomes.
With younger students, counselors teach about social issues such as bullying, administer achievement tests and help students develop study skills. All these things can translate into better achievement later.
In high schools, counselors help students navigate an ever-growing number of options that will shape their post-secondary careers in college or the workforce.
“We are teaching students how to be good students,” said Chris Otto, president of the Minnesota School Counselors Association and a junior high school counselor in Stillwater.
“If you have a good foundation in those skills, you will be successful later on.”The challenge, for Otto and other counselors at any grade level, is reaching every student.
In Farmington, Brand and Venz acknowledge that students who don’t have any serious need for intervention easily “fly under the radar.”
“For us, there are some kids, unfortunately, that I just won’t get to know because they are doing OK,” Venz said.
To combat that disconnect, school officials are working to give every student a staff member as a mentor who will meet with them once a week. “That way someone besides their teacher will know their name,” Venz said.
Otto and other counseling advocates say they understand that the fiscal problems in Minnesota and much of the nation make a substantial increase in the number of school counselors unlikely.
Instead, Otto and others hope the state will better define the services all students should receive outside the classroom.
“No matter how good the intentions of administrators, they struggle to implement them because of limited resources. I would like to see them develop standards in the areas of college and career readiness, academic, social and emotional development for kindergarten through 12th grade,” Otto said. “In schools, it is a matter of choices. Everything that happens in K-12 education is driven by standards.”
Administrators seem to put a higher value on counselors at all grade levels.
In Stillwater, district officials hired licensed social workers to serve as “student advocates” in each of the district’s elementary buildings.
The positions survived a recent round of budget cuts when $6.4 million was taken out of next year’s operating budget, Otto said. “That’s a step in the right direction.”
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