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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Overwhelming Caseloads for California School Counselors

By Peter DeWitt — August 26, 2013 4 min read
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• Bullying
• Drop-out rates
• College and career readiness
• Social-emotional issues
• Substance abuse
• School safety

School counselors are vital to any safe and positive school experience. In recent years, teachers and school leaders have seen an increase in the number of students who enter school with social-emotional issues, and school counselors are key in helping those students get back on track during the day and help them find productive lives after school.

Unfortunately, in California and other states across the U.S. school counselors are being cut due to the severe budget cuts that schools are experiencing. In a recent article, Dean Vogel, the President of the California Teachers Association said, “The first people to go are the people who aren’t typically assigned in a classroom or not attached to a core curriculum and that happens to be the counselor.” This is having a devastating impact on schools.

As much as those who do not work daily in the public school system believe teachers and school leaders need to focus solely on academics, those of us who work within the public school system understand that we can never raise the bar and increase expectations for all students if we do not meet their social-emotional needs first.

In his testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, Vinnie Pompei, the President of the California Association of School Counselors said, “Above all, America must act on what we know to be true. Our mental health system is broken and underfunded. Between 2009 and 2012, the states slashed mental-health spending by $4.3 billion--the largest reduction since de-institutionalization in the 1960s and 70s.” Those mental health spending cuts have affected kids as well as adults.

In Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom, published by the Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) researchers say,

Much of the attention currently given to improving students' academic achievement addresses issues of curriculum, instructional strategies, and interventions or services for struggling learners, and rightfully so. However, even after addressing these issues, barriers still remain for some students. An estimated one-third of students fail to learn because of psychosocial problems that interfere with their ability to fully attend to and engage in instructional activities, prompting a call for "new directions for addressing barriers to learning."

At the elementary level and middle school level, where adolescents often don’t understand how to work through their issues and feel a great deal of “storm and stress” (G. Stanley Hall), school counselors help students remain focused at the same time they help guide these troubled students through the emotional stress they feel on a daily or weekly basis. The simple fact is that not all students come from a supportive household and they bring that baggage to school with them every day.

G. Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association, coined the phrase “Storm and Stress” to explain the time “in an adolescent’s life when they are in conflict with their parents, are moody, and engage in risky behavior.” If students in middle school do not get their social-emotional needs met, it creates a domino effect and they enter high school with an increased desire to participate in risky behavior.

We understand that high school has the potential to be the best or worst time in a young person’s life depending on their experiences that they have when they are there. Adolescents who have a great circle of supportive friends and engaging teachers will leave high school ready to take on college and career readiness.

However, we also understand that there are students who do not have a positive high school experience. Over the past decade there has been an increase in the number of LGBT students who come out at a younger age and they do not always have the support at home to help them negotiate their way through their coming out experience (LGBT Students Need Our Support).

In addition, there are students who experiment with drugs and alcohol to fill a void that they lack and school counselors are often the ones who help them with interventions and help get those troubled students on the road to recovery.

California Cutting School Counselors
Over the past few years, California’s public school system has seen major cuts in the number of counselors who work in schools across the state. These cuts are leading to enormous caseloads for the counselors left standing in positions.

Canan Tasci wrote, “The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor to 250 students. However, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, California schools had one counselor for every 810 students in 2009-10, said Amanda Fitzgerald, the association’s director of public policy.”

It is an impossible job to meet the needs of over 800 students on a caseload. How can counselors help the students who need guidance on getting into college, spot the ones who have mild to severe social-emotional issues, and help keep the students at risk of dropping out of school engaged in school if their caseloads are triple the recommended amount?

In his testimony, Pompei went on to say, “The recommended ratio of students to counselors is 250-to-1. In California, where I live, the ratio is more than 1,000-to-1--a caseload not even Superman could handle!”

Most educators don’t want to just do their job; they want to do their job effectively. Having student caseloads that are triple to quadruple the recommended amount sets students up for failure, and worse, could be life-threatening.

In the Tasci article, Karen Houck, president of Association of Colton Educators said it best when she said,

It's sad for education in general that our students are not getting all their needs met. Teachers are there to meet the education needs of students while counselors are there to meet their emotional needs, and now someone else needs to meet that void and we don't know who that someone else is yet."

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.