"Bare bones" and "random acts of guidance" is how Kathy Pelzer described counseling services in the Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD) in California when she was hired in 2014. "It was all about just reacting to the issues," said Pelzer, whose caseload at Capistrano Valley High School was over 2,300 students.
Then the district hired 30 counselors — one for each elementary and middle school and two at each high school.
CUSD also hired a team of district-level counselors to focus on college and career readiness, a transformation that allows Pelzer and other counselors to implement a comprehensive program that includes delivering classroom lessons, holding sessions for small groups of students, and being part of "teaching and learning" at the school.
"Now, we are able to be proactive. We are able to put in place programs that are based on students' needs," said Pelzer, a past School Counselor of the Year for California. "It’s remarkable what can happen with just a couple more counselors on staff."
The decision by CUSD and other districts across California to hire more counselors has reduced average counselor-to-student ratios statewide from some of the highest in the country, at more than 1,000-to-1 in 2010-11, to 663-to-1 — still much higher than the American School Counselor Association's (ASCA) recommended 250-to-1 standard, but a significant reduction nonetheless.
Part of the school safety conversation
Now, after more than a year of discussion and recommendations from multiple state and national-level groups about increasing school-based mental health services, a few more state legislatures have taken specific steps to reduce counselors’ caseloads.
“There has been more activity when it comes to discussing school counseling services — in terms of prevention and early intervention — in the broad school safety conversation since Parkland,” said Amanda Fitzgerald, the director of public policy for ASCA.
Several large school safety packages, introduced in response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in February 2018 and subsequent acts of school violence, have included “a few sentences” about counselors spending more time on students’ needs and less time on paperwork, she said.
One state focusing on lowering counselor-to-student ratios is Arizona, which has the highest ratios in the country at 905-to-1. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed a fiscal 2020 budget that includes $60 million over three years for districts that apply for grants to hire more counselors or school resource officers. If those receiving the funds only hire counselors, the ratios could drop to 533-to-1 by 2022, said Janine Menard, board chair of the Arizona School Counselor Association.
“My association will continue to push for more funding even after the end of these three years, as this is only a start — a great start,” Menard said.
Pennsylvania is another state focusing on student support services. Its House Education Committee is considering legislation that would set ratios for counselors at 250-to-1.
And in March, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, signed the School Counseling Improvement Act, which requires schools to have a comprehensive school counseling program and to reduce the time counselors spend on administrative duties. With graduation rates in Arkansas improving, state education officials say the law is an important part of that effort.
Mandates don’t always mean funding
While the ASCA's Fitzgerald said she views any proposal to increase funding for counselors as an effort to reduce caseloads, she said there has been little action to mandate counselor-to-student ratios. Even when there are mandates, she said, they are often not followed by funding to hire more counselors.
Some policymakers, such as North Carolina state Sen. Phil Berger, a Republican, argue educators pushing for lower ratios — as members of the North Carolina Education Association (NCAE) did during the May 1 march in Raleigh — are ignoring that counselor caseloads in the state are smaller than the national average of 455-to-1.
“What the far-left NCAE withholds from the public and its members is that in categories for which national comparisons are possible, North Carolina is better than the national average,” Berger said in a press release. “And in each category, North Carolina's numbers are better than they were when Democrats controlled the General Assembly.”
Holding principals accountable
The increase in school counselors across California — a 28% increase between 2004-05 and 2014-15 — was not the result of a mandate. Instead, Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors (CASC), can track those changes back to 2012 when then-Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed Senate Bill 1458, which broadened the education accountability system to include more than test scores.
Championed by then-Sen. Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat and now the mayor of Sacramento, the law emphasizes college and career readiness and dropout prevention, and it paved the way for the California School Dashboard to include measures such as chronic absenteeism, suspensions and graduation rates.
Whitson said she remembers Steinberg participating in forums with high school dropouts to learn about experiences that led them to leave school. “During that time, he would always lean in on those panels and ask former dropouts did they have a school counselor and did they see their school counselor,” Whitson said.
Whitson said she’s more concerned with holding schools and principals accountable than trying to reach specific staffing guidelines and working with administrators to understand the role of school counselors.
“Most principals have been teachers, and they have not been pupil service providers,” Whitson said. That’s why administrators, she added, are sometimes doing “more dictating to counselors” than collaborating with them.
“It’s overwhelming to be a principal,” she said, adding that some school leaders are just looking for some help. And counselors, she said, are often not “clued in” to academic goals, such as the Common Core standards.
“Most principals have been teachers, and they have not been pupil service providers."
Executive Director, California Association of School Counselors
Research shows California schools are now relying more on counselors in order to improve outcomes for students in areas such as attendance and graduation. A report released last year as part of Getting Down to Facts II — a project involving Stanford University and Policy Analysis for California Education — points to how districts have used the flexibility under a revised funding formula “to hire counselors and social workers to serve low-income students, English learners, and foster youth.”
"Parent calls for more attention to the social and emotional needs of targeted student groups increasingly were reflected in district investments in counselors, social workers and student engagement programs," the authors wrote.
Whitson noted, however, that a lack of clarity still exists at times over what counselors are trained to do — especially when their role is only perceived as part of college readiness efforts.
"There is a mixed perception of their level of expertise," she said. "We’ve got to claim that we are the school-based mental health providers."