Recently, the Minnesota School Counselor’s Association teamed with Minnesota 2020 for the report “Minnesota School Counseling Crunch.” It’s clear from the information contained in the report that there are ample academic, career, personal and mental health needs among our state’s children and adolescents which are not being met.
The facts speak for themselves. While there are many reasons how and why we have arrived at this point, we have to decide what we are going to do to solve the problem?
The solution must come from several sources. It has to come from local communities with the support of parents and school boards as well as from the state through both the Legislature and Department of Education.
If nothing else and at the very least, counselors must be allowed to increase their direct service with students. Too many school counselors are overburdened with duties which impede their ability to do their job. One of these duties is coordinating all standardized testing for the school. These duties include proctoring tests, counting test booklets and sharpening pencils. Last year I spent at least 30 days administering tests in our school. That is over 210 hours I could have been working with students with mental illness as well as disruptive students, bullies and underachieving students.
One morning last year, a third grade student came up to me and asked if he could meet with me to talk about his parents fighting the night before. Sadly, I had to tell him I did not have time to meet with him because I had to get tests ready for that day. It broke my heart! This is just one example of how these students are sadly put on the back burner because of standardized testing.
Counselors also have enormous caseloads. As of today, my caseload will be 903 students. That means there are 903 students needing help and one of me to meet all their counseling needs. Over the past six years of serving as the school counselor at Reinertsen, I have seen the needs of our students doubled to tripled with the same number of counselors – one.
Elementary school years are critical in a child’s life. These are the years that set the tone for developing the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary for children to become healthy, competent and confident learners. Through a comprehensive developmental school counseling program, counselors work as a team with the school staff, parents and the community to create a caring climate and atmosphere. By providing education, prevention, early identification and intervention, school counselors can help all children achieve academic success. With these numbers on our caseload, Minnesota’s student-to-counselor ratio is among the nation’s worst and our children’s needs are not being met in our schools. What do we do to solve this problem?
We believe school counselors should be allowed to do exactly what they are educated to do. This involves improving two things: One, reducing the individual caseload of individual school counselors; and Two, allowing them to have the control over their workday so as to maximize their direct contact with students.
Students benefit from a school counseling program. Last year, I did classroom guidance lessons in six sections of second grade. I visited them six times for 20 minutes and presented the Stand Up Against Bullies curriculum. Three classrooms were given a pretest indicating 16 percent of them knew the concepts. Two months later a post-test indicated 58 percent mastered them. Teachers reported to me that their bullying reports had decreased. Our second grade students had learned how to handle bullying situations, what to do if they were being bullied and what they could do if they were a bystander, observing bullying behavior.
With lower student-to- counselor ratios, more students would benefit from classroom guidance lessons, small groups such as social skills groups and changing families groups and individual counseling. Right now I am meeting only some students’ needs and I should be meeting ALL of our students needs. It is extremely discouraging to me because many of our students needs are going unmet. The power of individual contact is lost; students are becoming numbers instead of individuals. It is really sad.
It is extremely important that we solve this problem and move forward to meet all of our student’s needs in Minnesota.
Lisa Karch is a school counselor at Reinertsen Elementary in Moorhead, and Vice President Elementary School Counselors, Minnesota School Counselors Association