A reduction in the number of school counseling positions in Arizona’s public schools is causing concerns among counselors and educators about schools’ ability to help students overcome challenges, from everyday obstacles like difficulty with classes or applying to college, to more serious social and mental health issues that may be affecting their academic progress.
Data recently released as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection effort noted that just 66 percent of Arizona high schools had access to school counselors, ranking the state the fourth lowest in the nation. Nationwide, 80 percent of high schools had access to school counselors.
According to the American School Counselors Association, Arizona has 861 students per counselor, over three times more than the 250 students per counselor the association recommends.
“When a school counselor has fewer students, more time can be spent focused on delivering effective programs and interventions that directly impact student success,” Gallus said.
During the Great Recession, Arizona districts made tough budget choices after the Arizona Legislature cut funding. Some reduced the number of counselors, while other eliminated school counselors completely.
“We no longer have any counselors at our elementary or middle school levels,” said Mark Tregaskes, superintendent of Safford Unified School District. “I wish that we did, but we don’t, so that means other people have had to pick up that or it’s not getting done.”
According to the Arizona Office of the Auditor General’s Report on Arizona School District Spending for fiscal year 2013, 18 percent of districts’ student support budget is spent on guidance counselors, trailing the 24 percent spent on speech, audiology and occupational/physical therapies and 19 percent spent on other unspecified services. The figures were based on data submitted by 118 public school districts in the state.
Mindy Willard is a counselor at Pendergast Elementary School District, the 2013 American School Counselor of the Year, and president-elect of Arizona School Counselor Association. She believes counselors are essential at all levels – elementary, middle and high school.
“School counselors are central to all schools and work closely with teachers, parents, and community,” Willard said.
Counselors generally spend 80 percent of their time with students, and the remainder of their time collaborating with teachers implementing Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, supporting testing, and using test data to create, monitor and evaluate student academic interventions.
Their responsibilities differ by grade levels.
In elementary school, school counselors provide developmental school counseling activities, teach the skills to help all students to be successful test takers, and are central to the career development process and curriculum that begins in kindergarten.
“(We help) children understand the importance of school and how what they are learning today will help them as they prepare for the next grade, the next school, and what they want to do after they graduate from high school,” Willard said.
In high school, school counselors work with teachers to analyze students’ test scores to identify areas where students need more help.
College admissions process
Guiding students, and sometimes their families, throughout the complicated college admissions process is central to a high school counselor’s job. Counselors share information on admission requirements, financial aid, preparing applications and how to be successful once there, said Meg Hughart, a school counselor at Winslow High School and an Arizona School Counselors Association executive board member.
“Counselors discuss options so that all students understand the need for post secondary education which is very individual and includes military, universities, tech schools, two year- and four year-colleges, and more,” Hughart said.
Research shows this role is especially important in schools with low-income or high-minority populations, said Melissa Beverly, a high school counselor in Cave Creek Unified School District and a 2014 finalist for American School Counselor of the Year.
Students whose families are recent immigrants and refugees may have difficulties navigating the public education and higher education system and may struggle in school because they are unfamiliar with American customs, social expectations, cultural references and slang.
A recent study, “The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students” by Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery noted that the largest number of low-income students accepted to very selective colleges came from a small number of schools whose counselors had developed expertise about those schools.
It also showed that low-income, first generation students have a higher retention rate at these smaller, selective schools, said Beverly.
“While such a student may glance at the price tag and allow that factor to prevent them from applying, school counselors can educate the students about the greater financial aid opportunities available at these schools,” she said.
Mental health help
“We then minimize the amount of loans students are borrowing, and truly set them up for success in an environment that offers smaller classes sizes, less teaching assistants, and more resources to help them stay in school,” Beverly said.
Helping students develop strong interpersonal skills, and identify and cope with social, emotional and mental health issues is an equally important part of the job, at all grade levels, and one being felt more acutely in some parts of the state.
“We have seen an increase in responding to crises/mental health concerns with changes in the economy, especially in rural areas where a lack of resources places a significant load of mental health duties on the school counselor’s shoulders” Willard said.
School counselors continue to help many students cope with death, divorce, moving, and family changes. They also help students with depression, ADHD, and behavioral concerns related to anger management.
“All these issues affect learning, and the school counselor works with teachers, family and others who care about the student to address these concerns and assist in interventions,” Beverly said.
School counselors often work closely with community mental health providers and may refer students identified as in crisis to other agencies for assistance.
“As a state, Arizona needs to ensure we are creating policies and practices that provide the resources needed to support education and mental health,” Gallus said.