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School Counseling: New Demands on a Diverse Profession

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Baltimore--Lois Scherer is the head guidance counselor at Walbrook High School in this city's western section. On a recent day that she termed "typical," she met with a student who is potentially suicidal, counseled a young woman who had discovered that she is pregnant, and listened to another student complain of being beaten by her mother.

Her activities also included: meeting with a student who suffers from a major learning disability, then discussing his progress with his mother; talking with a group of seniors about an "instant-admissions" program at a nearby college; shuffling a number of juniors to different homerooms to ease overcrowding; and arranging with the chairman of the English department for a student to make up a course he had already failed twice.

And late in the afternoon, she taught a special class in "decision-making."

"It's almost impossible to keep up with all the problems we have to deal with and the number of jobs we have to perform," she said at the conclusion of her day's work.

But Ms. Scherer, a 25-year veteran school counselor, maintained that the workload was not the most vexing part of her job.

"The difficult thing is knowing that we can't do everything. We can only do the best job possible," she said.

Counselors' Jobs Diversified

The Baltimore counselor, like her colleagues around the country, once spent most of her time dealing almost exclusively with students' academic needs and demands. Her current range of assignments, in which she functions alternately as social-services counselor, psychologist, and ombudsman--in addition to her academic duties--is the result of a gradual transformation of the school-guidance profession that began about 15 years ago. As students' social needs grew, along with the desires of school officials to serve them, counselors' jobs were diversified.

But even though school counselors now perform what many consider to be necessary functions, there is substantial disagreement among educators about the proper roles of social, psychological, and academic counseling in the schools.

And in recent years, as educators have sought to narrow the focus of their schools in the face of academic decline and shrinking budgets, the debate over priorities has tended to pit a school's counselors against its instructional personnel.

"Most students and parents perceive the guidance office as the source of all non-instructional school or community-based activities," said John J. Diggins, senior advisor for pupil services for the Boston Public Schools.

But teachers and administrators, he said, usually view school counseling "more as a conduit for ensuring correct student grade placement and the efficacy of other administratively oriented functions."

'Negative Reactions'

The final results of these "varying expectations," Mr. Diggins noted, are "negative reactions" by students, parents, and school faculties to the guidance-counseling function, as well as "low morale among the guidance staff."

Administrators generally contend--at a time when resources are scarce and the public calls for more and better training in basic skills--that guidance counselors should place greater emphasis on steering students into the right courses, enhancing learning skills, and motivating students to excel.

Guidance counselors began straying too far from their traditional functions of providing advice on occupations and colleges about 15 years ago, said Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

In the last four years, as the educational pendulum has swung back to improving basic skills in writing and mathematics, counselors who provide other kinds of services have found themselves operating without a broad base of support, he said.

With more colleges increasing admissions standards and more emphasis being placed on educational planning in the early years, the need for traditional educational counseling is increasing, he added.

"The widespread growth of the guidance counseling field that took place in the middle 1960's and early 70's allowed counselors to be more specialized," said Lloyd C. Nielsen, superintendent in Roseville, Minn.

"Now the situation is reversed," he said, "and educators aren't likely to devote their limited resources to support services until they feel the problems in their classrooms have been solved."

But school counselors themselves argue against placing too much emphasis on "educational guidance" at the expense of other student needs.

"Schools will not be able to avoid social problems they want to avoid," contended Edwin L. Herr, head of the division of counseling and educational psychology at Pennsylvania State University.

Mr. Herr, author of more than 20 books and monographs on guidance and counseling, said it is impossible for schools to "isolate psychological problems caused by forces outside of school from a student's willingness and ability to learn."

Both sides generally agree that schools now contend with an unprecedented array of students' behavioral problems that were the exception rather than the rule only a generation ago--and that responsibility for dealing with those problems has fallen to the school counselor.

Statistical studies on the behavior of contemporary young people indicate that:

The suicide rate among teen-agers has increased 250 percent in the last five years; that is the fastest-growing suicide rate for any age group. About 250,000 teen-agers are expected to attempt suicide this year. It ranks third behind auto accidents and homicide as a leading cause of death among young people.

High-school students still use marijuana and most other illicit drugs at "alarming rates," according to a federally sponsored survey of drug use. About one student in 16 uses marijuana daily, the study notes. (See Education Week, Feb. 16, 1983).

The number of students from one-parent families has increased markedly in recent years. In 1979, about 19 percent of children under 18 lived with only one parent, compared to 11.9 percent in 1968. It is now estimated that about half of the children born in any year will live with only one parent at some time before they are 18.

Such factors have created a greater need for child counseling at all levels of education and for counselors trained to deal with such problems, according to school-guidance specialists.

'Retrained and Renewed'

"Only about 20 percent of the nation's 62,000 guidance personnel are capable of providing the services now demanded of the profession. The other 80 percent need to be retrained and renewed, and high-school guidance programs need to be remodeled," says Robert D. Myrick, a professor of education at the University of Florida.

The problem, he says, is that the demands of the job are completely different from what most guidance counselors were trained for years ago and many counselors and counseling programs "have not changed with the times."

To compound the problem, financial retrenchment in school systems across the nation has resulted in significant reductions in guidance-counseling staffs at the high-school level, along with an increased workload of both social-services and academic duties for those remaining. (The number of counselors serving in elementary schools is increasing, however.) (See story, this page.)

Nationwide, student-to-counselor ratios at high schools average approximately 400 to 1; the American Personnel and Guidance Association's (apga) recommended ratio is 250 to 1.

"The states that have cut are mostly those in the northern tier--such as Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio--which have been hard hit by enrollment declines and changing economies," said Marlene Pinton, president of the American School Counselors Association

The Sunbelt states and Utah, where enrollments are growing, are still recruiting and hiring high-school counselors, she said.

Some school districts have nearly eliminated their guidance-counseling programs. In South St. Paul, for example, the number of guidance counselors working for the school district has been cut in half, and those high-school guidance counselors remaining were made "academic deans" responsible for truancy and discipline rather than counseling, according to a former guidance counselor there.

And in Huntington Beach, Calif., 40 of 43 counselors were laid off in 1981 and replaced by clerical workers.

In 1980, the 60,000-student Boston school system reduced the number of high-school counselors from 105 to 84, raising the pupil-to-counselor ratio to 400 to 1.

At Boston's Dorchester High School, which has a high percentage of bilingual students, the staff was cut from four counselors to two.

"It's not as if the high ratio can be lessened by talking to kids in groups. Here, we have 400 students with 400 different problems," said Marion L. Conley, head guidance counselor at the school.

A study of the Boston public-school system conducted by the Boston Globe last summer found that "because of a shortage of staff, resources, and coordination, academic and career guidance to many students is brief or nonexistent, particularly for students not bound for college.'' It also noted that the high student-to-counselor ratio caused by layoffs came at a time when "caseloads were already too heavy to allow adequate time with students."

In Florida, "at high schools with 2,000 or more students, there are only three or four counselors," according to Billie P. Jackson, guidance consultant to the Florida Department of Education. "The average ratio is about 500 students to one counselor."

At the Walbrook school in Baltimore--where Ms. Scherer works--the guidance staff last year was reduced from six counselors to five, the job-placement administrator was laid off, and the school psychologist was moved to another building. The ratio of students to counselors in the inner-city school is about 500 to 1.

Many of the students, said Ms. Scherer, come from troubled families and receive limited help from home. The school, all of whose students are black, is often forced to refer students with deep-rooted psychological or emotional problems to city social-services agencies or psychiatrists outside the school system, she said.

Poor Image of Counselors

Although the rationale given for the widespread reductions in counseling services is generally economic, some educators attribute the cuts, at least in part, to the poor image of guidance counselors.

"If guidance counselors are not perceived as open and caring and sensitive, and if they are not visible in the hallways, students will go somewhere else to talk about problems," said Mr. Myrick. "Massive cutbacks in guidance-counseling services generally occur," he added, "when guidance counselors spend too much time attending to administrative functions and paperwork that could be handled more efficiently and cost-effectively by secretaries or low-level administrators."

The average counselor spends at the least 60 percent of his or her time doing paperwork, such as changing class schedules, according to Mr. Myrick and others.

But C.A. Zimmerman, principal of Shaker Heights High School in suburban Cleveland and a former guidance counselor, contended that the "image problem" of guidance counselors results not from their administrative duties, but from their serving principals, teachers, and students, which he calls a "thankless task."

"Guidance counseling is a low-visibility job. The guidance counselor is a behind-the-scenes helper," he said.

Although guidance counselors acknowledge that their field is now going through a difficult period of changing definitions and professional strains, many note that some promising changes are taking place that may ameliorate both the image and substance of the role of the guidance counselor over the next few years.

The growth of elementary-school counseling may ultimately help eliminate many behavioral and emotional problems at an early age, they say. Moreover, the counselors point out, they are learnin The growth of elementary-school counseling may ultimately help eliminate many behavioral and emotional problems at an early age, they say. Moreover, the counselors point out, they are learning how to best utilize peer and group counseling, and they are developing management systems for guidance programs that allow them to better assess and evaluate students' needs.

A few states, including New York and Colorado, have even introduced state plans for improving guidance-counseling programs.

Open New Options

In addition, the introduction of computers into schools may help ease the burden of paperwork, registration, and scheduling for the counselors. Computers may also open new options for college and vocational guidance, through computerized information packages that students can study at their own pace, according to a number of practitioners.

"The end result [of the introduction of computers] may be that counselors spend less time with clients, but that the time they do spend will be more productive," according to Frank E. Burtnett, associate executive for professional-development programs at the apga

Some districts are also taking more conventional steps to ease the amount of required paperwork so that counselors will have more time for students.

In Boston, for example, the office of pupil personnel services lowered the number of reports required of counselors from 39 to two. No longer do counselors have to list daily appointments and personal data on all students interviewed. Also discontinued were requirements that counselors report on where students go to college, according to Mr. Diggins.

But by far the most encouraging note came from those who train the guidance counselors.

Problems 'Demystified'

They said that the availability of research on problem behavior, and the development of successful techniques for dealing with that behavior, have "demystified" many student problems.

Increasingly, counselors trained in the last several years are able to approach a problem "with a variety of techniques, rather than approaching all problems the same way," according to Mr. Herr of Penn State.

Such training, along with "team approaches" to guidance counseling, he said, "reduce the number of counselors thrown into the breach and sharpen how they function."

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