Just three years ago, before his Oregon middle school had a counselor on-site full time, Jeff Steindorf found himself playing that de facto role. Well-liked and trusted at his school, the health and wellness teacher often had students and parents confiding in him about problems with classes, in social circles, and at home. At times, even administrators checked in with Steindorf for his advice on students with behavior problems.
“It fell into my lap,” says Steindorf, who is in his seventh year teaching at Yamhill Carlton Intermediate School, in Yamhill, Ore. “It probably took up 35 to 40 percent of my day dealing with these issues that a counselor would take on, … and sometimes I felt I was over my bounds as far as my job title,” he says. “But how can you turn away a kid that has a problem?”
The school was eventually able to get a full-time counselor on campus by creating a hybrid role for a counselor and district “behavior specialist,” using both building and district money.
Sympathetic classroom teachers like Steindorf and full-fledged school counselors are just part of the intricate and often-changing puzzle that is a student’s in-school support system. Depending on a district’s financial situation, that system may also include social workers, school-based police officers, truancy officers, nurses, psychologists, and clinicians at school-based health centers.
But around the country, economic constraints have dealt a heavy blow to support staff. Personnel losses, compounded with the extra stressors on students and their families because of the recession and its aftermath, have made it a particularly tough few years for all involved.
Steindorf, like many classroom teachers, staff members, clinicians, and researchers, is a firm believer that there is an inextricable connection between students’ social, emotional, and mental health and their academic success.
“You can have the most outstanding curriculum in the world and the finest-trained teachers in a school, but if you have kids who are unavailable for learning because of what’s going on in their personal lives, it doesn’t matter,” says Lynn Linde, the coordinator of clinical experiences in the school’s counseling program at Loyola University Maryland, in Baltimore, and a former president of the American Counseling Association.
In a March 2011 public-policy report, the Alexandria, Va.-based American Counseling Association, which represents professional counselors nationwide, listed studies showing that school mental-health and counseling services have positive effects on academic achievement, behavior, dropout risk, school climate, suicide prevention, violence prevention, and school engagement.
The report refers to the 2003 finding by Seattle researchers Christopher A. Sink and Heather R. Stroh that elementary students who attend schools with comprehensive school counseling programs lowering student-to-counselor ratios can reduce disciplinary problems.than those in schools without them. It also cites a 2006 study by Scott E. Carrell and Susan A. Carrell of Dartmouth College showing that
Up to 30 percent of students have difficulty adjusting to school, says Roger Weissberg, the president and chief executive officer of the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL. Having staff members who are trained in dealing with social and emotional challenges is critical, he says.
According to CASEL’s meta-analysis of 213 research-based social- and emotional-learning programs, students who took part in such programs averaged an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement, based on standardized tests and school grades. “If you care about the academic performance of students, you have to care about … addressing the needs of the whole child,” says Weissberg, a technical adviser for Quality Counts 2013.
Schools can pay for support-staff positions in a variety of ways—through the school district, grant funding, federal turnaround dollars, and even PTA fundraising. But since 2008, nearly every existing funding source has been plagued by dwindling capital.
School counseling positions, in particular, have declined around the country. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education and its National Center for Education Statistics:
- Two thousand counseling positions were lost between the 2008-09 and 2010-11 school years.
- During that same period, the ratio of students to counselors nationwide went to 470-to-1 from 457-to-1.
- In 2010-11, only three states—New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wyoming—could tout better than the ACA’s recommended ratio of 250-to-1.
- California has maintained the nation’s worst ratio of students to counselors. In 2008-09, it was 814-to-1, and in 2010-11, it went up to 1,015-to-1. Arizona, Minnesota, and Utah have had consistently poor ratios as well.
“My number-one concern right now is stemming the tide of school counselors being cut,” says Gene Eakin, the school-counseling-program lead at Oregon State University, in Corvallis. In Oregon, the ratio increased to 553-to-1 in 2010-11, from 522-to-1 in 2008-09.
As ratios worsen and the economy remains anemic, “the challenge for schools becomes greater,” says Linde of Loyola University, “because you have more kids in schools whose parents are unemployed, who are becoming homeless, who are living in poverty. The amount of domestic violence and substance abuse increases. It’s a vicious cycle.”
In Linde’s view, one reason budget cuts have hit support personnel hard—in many cases, harder than teachers and administrators—is the federal focus over the past decade on testing-based accountability.
“Given the choice between [keeping] a counselor or a reading specialist, even a principal who understands the relationship between social and emotional needs and academic achievement is sitting there thinking, ‘I keep my job if my kids make test scores,' " says Linde. “These are tough choices.”
Bruce Hunter, the associate executive director for advocacy, policy, and communications for the American Association for School Administrators, an Alexandria, Va.-based group that represents district-level leaders, agrees that the testing push has forced administrators to reframe their priorities.
It’s a “truism in management that what gets measured gets managed. And we’re not measuring counseling,” he says.
But emphasizing reading and math instruction above social and emotional skills is a “short-term strategy,” says Weissberg of CASEL.
“If you have engaged, self-disciplined, connected students, with strong relationships…the academic performance and kids’ behavior both can improve,” he says. “It’s kind of, ‘Pay me now or pay me later.' "
Hunter of the AASA recognizes that, especially in high-needs communities, cutting social- and emotional-support positions is “the road to eventual destruction.” But once administrators have made as many cuts as possible in places that don’t affect instruction—for instance, by saving energy, lengthening bus routes, delaying maintenance, and freezing salaries—they reach a point where staff cuts are inevitable. So they start as far from the classroom as they can, he says.
“You only have the money that you receive, and you try to spend that money in the way that works best for kids—but it also has to work for the system,” says Hunter. “If you don’t keep math and reading scores up, you’re going to have trouble with the board and politicians.”
Support-staff members who have kept their jobs often have seen considerable changes to their roles and responsibilities, along with competing pressures. Counselors and social workers report they now have a harder time pulling children out of academic instruction for services—many are only allowed to do so during lunchtime, says Linde. And when testing days come around, the support staff is frequently pulled in to help coordinate.
“So often, school counselors end up being assigned secretarial or clerical duties, such as prepping test materials to be distributed in classrooms,” says Eakin of Oregon State.
The Alexandria, Va.-based American School Counselor Association’s “national model,” which offers a framework for a comprehensive school-counseling program, includes testing coordination and clerical duties on its list of “inappropriate activities for school counselors.”
Changes in other policy arenas have affected counselors’ day-to-day activities as well.
Christine Abrams, the supervisor of K-12 school counseling services in New Jersey’s Hopewell Valley regional school district, points out that under a New Jersey anti-bullying law put in place in 2011, a school’s “anti-bullying specialist” must conduct an investigation if a student reports a bullying or harassment incident. Most often, that role falls to the counselor. After a bullying incident occurred on a bus in her district, Abrams recalls, one school counselor had to spend days interviewing every student who had been on the bus at the time.
Trickling Down to Teachers
With larger caseloads and more administrative responsibilities, support-staff members are forced to rethink how they manage their workloads.
“It’s a no-brainer,” says Linde of Loyola University Maryland. “You stop doing prevention and start being crisis-driven.” And that switch from prevention to intervention can have a profound effect on classrooms.
Group sessions and classroom presentations—for instance, on friendship, bereavement, time management, or test-taking anxiety—become rare as support personnel are overtaxed. One-on-one counseling sessions with students are hard to fit in, too.
Ideally, teachers would make up for such losses by incorporating social and emotional learning into their lessons. But there’s already “tremendous stress on teachers,” says Weissberg of CASEL. Plus, “the bottom line right now is that colleges of education could do a much better job of preparing teachers to address kids’ social and emotional developmental needs,” he says.
April Dominguez, a school counselor and prevention specialist for the Kern County school district superintendent of schools in Bakersfield, Calif., agrees that teacher-education programs are not adequately preparing teachers. That’s partly because most current state academic standards have “few, if any, direct learning objectives related to social and emotional learning,” she says. And the Common Core State Standards, which all but four states have adopted, don’t improve on the situation, mainly because the outcomes of such learning are difficult to measure, she says.
Karen Lucci, a high school science teacher in New Jersey’s 3,800-student Hopewell Valley district, says she’s received some professional development on students’ social, emotional, and mental-health needs over the years, but most of it has focused on identifying potential problems—such as abuse, depression, and drug use—and getting students “to the right person at the right time.”
Lucci says she is grateful that, despite budget cuts, her district has “really made a concerted effort to keep as many people as they could who have direct contact with kids,” including counselors.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the number of elementary and secondary school counselors will have gone up by 8 percent between 2010 and 2020. But that would still leave most school systems far from having the recommended student-to-counselor ratio of 250-to-1.
Some districts are branching out for help, including turning to school-based health centers to provide mental-health services for students. Those centers, often financed by grants, can save districts money by billing students’ insurers or Medicaid. Such centers sometimes have drawn political pushback, mainly over questions about whether they can or will provide contraceptives. But they are proliferating.
According to data from the National Association of School-Based Health Centers, located in Washington, the number of centers that offered mental-health services increased from 805 sites in the 2004-05 school year to 1,226 in 2007-08. There are now about 2,100 school-based health centers nationwide.
Some see SBHCs as a method of filling staffing holes at elementary schools, where the need is greatest.
“If we addressed social-emotional needs at a younger age, there’d be fewer behavior issues when the kids get bigger. It affects everything in terms of dropout rates, graduation rates,” argues Katie Neuschwanger, now the full-time counselor and behavior specialist at Yamhill Carlton Intermediate, in Oregon. “If you don’t have a kid figured out by 9th grade, you’re that salmon swimming upstream.”
At Yamhill Carlton, Neuschwanger says, she “came into a position where they were very thankful for a school counselor.” After years without one housed in the building—and with teachers like Jeff Steindorf generously picking up the slack—"they viewed it as a necessity now instead of a luxury.”