Schools Are Adding Counselors. But Can They Make the Gains Permanent?

For years now, there’s been a growing push to provide more and better counseling services to students at all levels of the public school system. But in the last two-and-a-half years, especially, the need for counseling professionals has been recognized like never before.

Thanks to that burgeoning public awareness, plus hundreds of millions of dollars in federal relief funding for schools, districts have been able to beef up their counseling staffs and better serve the students in their care—a reality that is bearing out in national data and in local success stories alike.

Earlier this year, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) released numbers from the 2020-21 school year, using data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics. For every school counselor in the country, there were 415 students in 2020-21, down from 491 in 2013-14, the new data shows. That ratio continues a steady improvement that began nearly a decade ago and represents the lowest recorded ratio nationally in 32 years, though states’ averages vary widely.

It’s a marked change, says Jill Cook, executive director of ASCA, and it comes at a time when student mental health challenges—anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and more—seem like an epidemic of its own. Though school counselors don’t diagnose or prescribe medication, they serve as a critical liaison between students and the specialists who are best equipped to address their needs.

“We know kiddos have the needs. We know anxiety is high,” says Cook. “School counselors are not therapists, but they are certainly one of the key staff on the front lines, helping identify issues and connect students.”

Local Efforts to Lower Caseloads

While the latest counselor-to-student ratio is a move in the right direction, it’s still quite a way off from ASCA’s recommended ratio of 1:250. Yet a growing number of school districts are working hard locally to get within that range on their own.

Last year, seeing how many students were struggling and how severe their needs were, the school board at Santa Ana Unified School District in California decided to make a major investment in its counselors. In the matter of a year, the district went from having 65 counselors on staff to 205—an addition of 140 counselors, representing a nearly 200 percent increase in staff.

The board had already secured enough funding to get the district’s counseling ratio from 1:350. Using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, which include grants to support student mental health, they were able to bring it down to 1:250.

“Our goal this year is to show the impact our school counselors are having,” says Rebecca Pianta, coordinator of college and career readiness at Santa Ana Unified, adding that her team is using a combination of data collection and anecdotes to make that case. “Then our leadership team can look to see how we can make this [ratio] more permanent.”

Through ESSER funding, Congress and the Biden administration indicated their commitment to student mental health and well-being, Cook notes. But at some point—likely in about two years—those federal funds will run out, and she worries about what will happen then. “Is this something districts are willing to do when there isn’t federal funding for those roles?” she asks. “Districts are having to determine what that might look like a couple of years from now.”

Pianta is optimistic that leaders will see the value of the additional staff this year and solidify those positions long-term. But she also knows that if they can’t make up the ESSER funding after it expires, 1:350 is a vast improvement over where the district was not too long ago. Before the pandemic started, she says, some schools in the district had ratios of 1:400, while others were at 1:600 or 1:800, depending on the student population in each building.

The smaller caseloads for each counselor have allowed them to get to know students and build a rapport with them, so that when a difficult event occurs or the student is struggling, that child feels comfortable approaching their counselor for help.

“Early identification is key,” Pianta says. “It’s about getting students connected with resources, truly knowing their stories and what they’re dealing with. We’re really big now on prevention as opposed to only being responsive.”

A few hundred miles north, in central California, Alma Lopez and her counselor colleagues are now finally able to give students enough attention for that kind of service, too.

Livingston Union School District is small and rural, but when Lopez first started working there in 2006, it was up to just her and one other counselor to serve all 2,500 students. That made for a daunting caseload and an impersonal, triage-based style of counseling.

“Very few students, even staff, knew who I really was because I was there so little,” Lopez recalls. “When I was five or six years in and went to one of the campuses, someone thought I was a substitute teacher. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve been here five years. I am your school counselor.’”

In 2015, the district changed course, hiring a counselor for each of the three elementary schools and allotting two counselors, including Lopez, to the middle school. This year, district officials are in the process of hiring a third counselor for the middle school, resulting in six counselors for the 2,500 students.

The difference is evident, Lopez says. Counselors are able to go into classrooms on a regular basis and give lessons. Students see their counselor, get to know them, and understand that that person is a constant in their school building and their lives.

“[Years ago], they didn’t know who I was, and I was calling them in for really tough stuff—death of a parent, divorce. I was having to build this relationship from scratch to talk about a really tough thing,” Lopez recalls of her first 10 years at the district. “Now, they know me. They know who we are, and they’re not as nervous and fearful about things. … It allows for kids to reach out to us when those big things in their life happen that are difficult or they need support on. We know each other and trust each other.”

Are There Enough Counselors?

School counselors haven’t always been seen as connectors for mental health resources and other support services, notes Hillary Emmer, school counseling specialist at Jordan School District in Utah. Historically, they were “guidance counselors” and primarily advised students on academic progress and postsecondary pursuits, rather than mindfulness, friendship and emotions.

In the last decade or two, that has changed, Emmer says. Now, counselors—and school staff broadly—consider the whole child in their work.

“Kids don’t learn math if they can’t cope with their anxiety or if they aren’t getting food at home,” she explains. “The job became bigger than just focusing on career and graduation because we know that if the whole student isn’t supported, learning is just harder. Learning can’t happen if those basic needs aren’t met first.”

Leaders at Jordan, a suburban district outside of Salt Lake City, leaned into that idea a few years ago and hired enough counselors so that, at the secondary level, the ratio fell to about 1:350. More recently, with the pandemic, those same leaders have recognized the need for similar support at the elementary level.

The pandemic, Emmer says, “was a highly traumatic event. It was a big catalyst for change. You could see that mental health became a growing and growing reason for why students needed to see a school counselor. And it wasn’t just at the secondary level. In elementary, behavioral concerns were escalating.”

Jordan has 42 elementary schools, and this year, the district opened 42 new positions for school counselors. And the positions are permanent. They’re funded with tax revenue, rather than ESSER dollars—a move that Emmer says was “brave” of the school board and indicates the success the district was seeing with the increased counseling staff at the secondary level.

Right now, Jordan has about 120 school counselors. To be fully staffed, they’ll need 150 to 160—they’ve filled 13 of the 42 open positions since hiring began in July. Emmer expects more applications to come through in early 2023 and is confident the district will be able to fill the positions with highly qualified professionals.

But nationally, there is a counseling shortage—for what Cook, at ASCA, says is the first time ever.

“There has never been a time with so many opening counseling positions, in rural areas in particular,” she says.

To get to ASCA’s recommended ratio of 1:250, the U.S. would need 80,000 more counselors than it currently has, for a total of 200,000.

“That’s a lot of school counselors,” Cook concedes. And it means there’s a lot of work left to be done.

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