Sunday, March 07, 2010

Counselors in our Schools

There has been some concern expressed here over the district letting the Career Counselors go at the high schools. Now, we have more concerns over the possible letting go of elementary counselors.

I don't know how many elementaries have counselors or even what their role is exactly (although I can guess). According to one school's webpage (Concord), the counselor can meet students individually to help them with feelings and concerns or can meet in small groups or provide classroom guidance with lessons on coping, peer relationships, problem solving, etc. as well as providing anti-bullying lessons. The other thing in the mix is that the district also has Family Support Workers who generally work at a couple of schools to support families who have issues about providing clothing, food, school materials for their student as well as families in crisis. A few schools have both but again, I am not sure how this gets decided.

I've seen in some responses to education stories in the Times the line "well, back in our day, we didn't have all these counselors,etc." and basically that schools are spending too much on these kinds of positions. To me the reality is that we live in a complex world where some children have some real challenges. Without support at school, things could be worse for these kids, both physically and mentally. Is it a parents' duty to take responsibility for their child's support and well-being? Yes, it is but the reality is that not everyone is equipped to do this. Public schools take all comers and we can ignore the child who clearly seems ill-equipped for school or we, as a society, can do something so that child does succeed.

We can cut counselors but it will likely hurt kids in many unseen ways.

This brings me to an article in the NY Times about a survey of high school graduates (over the last 12 years) that says that most believe that their guidance counselor provided little meaningful advice to them about college or careers. This was a survey sponsored by the Gates Foundation to find out about low high school and college completion rates.

These students are probably telling the truth and they probably didn't get much advice.

The elephant in the room? The ratio for many of our high schools (and indeed, throughout the country) is about 350-400 to 1. Take that in. You have 400 bright-eyed students to guide on class selection (a huge amount of time), college advice (and that may be more than ever given the high schools no longer have career counselors) and testing (both state and college tests). Add to that students who seek them out for personal issues (bullying, worry over grades, drug/alcohol issues). (Most high schools do have a Teen Health Center with a counselor but that person? Probably also overwhelmed with a huge number of students to help.)

Kids need help especially in high school. The difference some attention can make to a student making a good decision for their future is just huge. Without our counselors, I don't know what would happen. It can just be about teachers, a secretary, a librarian and a principal in order to provide an education to a child but for more success for more students, we need our counselors.

22 comments:

zb said...

"It can just be about teachers, a secretary, a librarian and a principal in order to provide an education to a child but for more success for more students, we need our counselors. "

I don't agree, because I think that all those other people provide some of the same services as a counselor, especially an over-scheduled one. For example, career guidance can be provided by teachers and principals and librarians. So can college advice. Specializing those roles to counselor doesn't really seem a benefit to me. I'd rather have teacher loads arranged so that they can spend more meaningful time with their students, outside of the purely academic.

Rob said...

Seriously ZB? Just dump the entire job of college and career counceling into the teachers laps?

Teachers and principals have no extra time. They are spread thin and are always slammed. Plus, they are not career and college specialists. They don't have the training or the time to research scholarships, internships, how to write the best college essay, etc., and then meet individually with each student and encourage and help them through the process.

If you don't think we need councelors that's fine, but don't expect already over worked teachers and principals to pick up the slack. That's just not realistic.

zb said...

Oh, no, I don't think it should be dumped in their laps in addition to everything else they do. I just think that counselors *might* (and I mean might, I don't think I know very much) be an overspecialization for the role they actually provide. I have heard very little positive about the role that counselors have played in people's high school experiences. Usually, the person who helped was a teacher.

I know that's not the plan, but I think that spreading out the role of counselor among teachers, *and* giving them the time to do it, is the way to go.

reader said...

The elementary counselors were now doing special ed. Since the district doesn't want to do special ed any more, doesn't it make sense to get rid of the counselors?

methyl said...

A comment about counselors at the elementary grade level:

FABULOUS!

You never think it is your kid who is going to get into trouble, but when my kindergartner started teasing another kid, she stepped in and chose age-appropriate solutions (apology letters, calling mom on the phone from school, etc.).

The weekly classroom lessons in kindergarten about compassion, feelings, conflict resolution, reading body language, self-esteem and assertiveness, etc. are a great thing to introduce at the very beginning of a kid's school career.

Having a specialist at the school address these issues means that there is a consistent message given to all kids at the appropriate age level.

Chris said...

"Back in the day" we did have a counselor. And I'm pretty old. All I want to say is don't devalue counselors in general because high-schoolers don't think they are useful. Like many supports, I think they are most valuable when started early; e.g. elementary counselors. You may not need one if you've never had a family death, a school death, a pet death, sibling issues, or bullying issues. In which case you should count your blessings. I guess we had a good one most of the time, so I'm not jaded. but given minimally competent people, I think early intervention always pays off. A kid who gets to middle school without ever having been "counseled" is not going to be very accepting just based on developmental stage.

dan dempsey said...

Can someone explain to me how we are cutting counselors now... yet awarded the Superintendent $5280 dollars for meeting around 25% of goals? Did this budget restricted environment just suddenly appear?

I've read MGJ's contract there was no obligation to award any bonus.

What is the matter with these directors?

The SPS is beginning to resemble a really bad divorce... SPS Over-Lords only reference the children (or even notice them) when it is to their advantage. The rest of the time it is all about adult concerns.

Oh yeah "Elementary Counselors" who needs them. Class size irrelevant...
RIF teachers and expand academic coaching .... Who can possibly think this is a model to improve student learning or build a sane society?

Oh yes every school will be a Quality School even though it has been months of this blarney and the SPS has yet to even define what a quality school is. Remember the entire Student Assignment Plan is based on this "Quality School" premise. {Otherwise we are promoting separate and unequal schools.}

Just trust them it is like the NTN contract ... it will show up someday and you will like it.

{God help us ..... We are trapped in the Twilight Zone ... can Rod Serling lead us out?}

SolvayGirl1972 said...

The counselor at my child's elementary was (and still is) a valuable asset to the school. He taught every class anti-bullying strategies (Kelso's Choice) and counseled individuals and groups with a variety of problems from home-related issues to test-taking strategies. He had to call DSHS on a few occasions and was invaluable when police descended on the school playground one afternoon at the end of the school day in pursuit of a wanted felon (the "boyfriend" of a school parent who was picking up her child). He helped the kids cope with the stress of being "locked down" in the building while police had their guns drawn in the parking lot.
Losing these counselors will only exacerbate many of the social problems we have in our schools.

As for the college counselors...I don't know if ZB has a clue about how intense competition for college admittance is these days. Most kids apply to a minimum of 5 schools, and many up to 15. That's a lot of work for a teacher to help with—and our kids most in need who don't have parents who went through the application process might get left in the dust.

kanne said...

I am a Seattle-area social worker and I work with families in crisis, so I understand first-hand the immense value of public school elementary school counselors. School counselors are a lifeline for SPS children and families. These professionals are mental health practitioners who provide an important array of mental health and social support services. For a large number of families, there are many barriers involved with connecting with a community-based counselor or agency: transportation, the stigma of going to a mental health agency, language and cultural barriers, cumbersome paperwork, or long wait-lists. In other cases, parents won't take the initiative of finding a community agency and the school counselor identifies children directly and is their safety net.

I teach a class for Seattle-area divorcing and separating families. Many are Seattle families-- many have school-aged children. I refer to school counselor every single session for the crucial services that they provide.

Elementary school counselors are providing services-- but they are also doing prevention. Children's social and emotional needs won't go away without intervention, they will become amplified. Your choice is to pay for the service now... or to end up paying later (increased drop out rates in high school, increased violence, less family engagement in school.)

Melissa Westbrook said...

ZB, what school are you at that the principal or librarian provide career guidance? I have never seen either role as having the time to do that. Ask teachers to do more? Tell that to them when contract negotiations come around and see what they say. You may think counselors aren't necessary but don't ask anyone else to pick up their load. Also, who do you think makes class schedules for high school?

If we don't help these kids, we will have more and more kids fail or just do poorly.

Charlie Mas said...

The part that is hardest for me to understand is that the District is removing the elementary school counselors just at the time when they are making those counselors the fulcrum of their intervention strategy, RTI.

How is RTI going to work without the counselors?

southend girl said...

Our counselor sets a positive tone for the whole school. He truly reaches each student with positive discipline, anti bullying and Kelso's choices curriculum. He helps kids cope with divorce, family illness and death, homelessness...big problems in addition to the day to day conflicts and issues.

He is part of the reason I feel comfortable sending my kids to our south Seattle school. He is a real partner to the principal, teachers ans staff. Having a counselor in this environment is a need, not a luxury. Things will really change without him.

Isn't it better to help kids while they're young to prevent bigger problems later? Talk about penny wise ans pound foolish. The choice to eliminate elementary counselors is pushing our family over the edge in our loss of faith in SPS the past few years.

Teachermom said...

Charlie,

RTI is like the emperor's new clothes. We all talk about it and the wonderful threads it is made out of, but really.......



......there's nothing there.....

Counselors are a big piece of what we need for RTI to be a reality - specialists who aren't tied to a caseload or spread wafer-thin between 3 or more schools like school psychologists are.

Central Mom said...

This is one of those opportunities to weigh in with the Mayor's office, which is currently taking comments around its balleyhooed children and families initiatives. Tell the administration that this is a bad move for the kids. Ask for either a push from the administration to the District to reinstate the funding, or secondarily to spend city funds to supply the elementary positions.

Really, every elementary school needs this position in place.

renee alsept said...

Really ZB? What about the kid being molested by step dad or the kid who's mom is on drugs or the kid who has one parent in jail for beating up the other parent? Really, are we really going to burder our teachers with that one? Oh, and wouldn't it be nice to have a person who is educated to deal with that and not a math specialist or a special ed teacher or a science teacher? Really ZB. Thank goodness the school counselor at my kid's school figured out that some kids go home to NO FOOD. Clearly ZB has a perfect life!

SolvayGirl1972 said...

To give ZB a bit of credit, I believe he/she is speaking about the high school guidance counselors who help students plan for college, etc. and not the elementary school counselors who are actually psychologists.
With that said though, I believe they are both essential.

Melissa Westbrook said...

No, the high school guidance counselors don't do as much college guidance as you might think. One, because there used to be the Career Counselors (now gone) and two, so now that there is no Career Counselor, the guidance counselors DO help but between scheduling and testing and being responsible for 400 kids, how much time do you think they really have for college guidance?

Just to note, there are groups out there that DO help with college counseling but for some kids, it's hard to access if it isn't on-site.

grousefinder said...

Anecdotally...In High School I took the Career Counselor's "Professional Aptitude Survey." It was supposed to tell me what job I would be good at. I met her in the counseling office for my results, hoping for Botanist, Naturalist, Forest Ranger, and other such romantic notions. When the results came back (and I quote) "Priest," I had to laugh. "I have never met a Jewish priest," I said while leaving the conference for my Fishing Club meeting.

Moral to the story...I became a teacher.

SolvayGirl1972 said...

This is all just so sad. The kids that need counseling the most will be the ones to suffer.

kanne said...

Here's a great letter to the editor published by the Seattle Times 3/9 (might be worth re-posting somewhere):

I SPENT three hours at a budget retreat for my son's elementary school.

And then I went home and cried.

I mean, really, is this the best we can do? Even fewer resources and bigger classrooms while losing the staff necessary to hold the pieces together.

In a stealth attack, Seattle Public Schools eliminated its funding of a half-time counselor position in all elementary schools. In our school, gone too is the half-time math coach critical to teaching students in each of four split-grade classrooms. And there went the full-time librarian — we got funding for only half that position.

Right about now, the School Board is countering, hey wait, we gave you some "discretionary" dollars! You can choose to retain one of those three part-time positions.

Talk about a Sophie's Choice.

But there's more. We'll no longer have a full-time art teacher. They don't give us money to pay for the daily copying of math work sheets for every student, as mandated by the district's new math curriculum.

And here's the worst of all. With the elimination of staff positions, we won't have bodies to supervise kids during after-lunch recess. Instead, we'll hold them in the cafeteria for an extra 15 minutes, and then at the point where the sugar in their system ignites with claustrophobia, we'll shoo them back into their classrooms for the rest of the afternoon.

There is no race to the top here — it's more a free fall to the bottom.

I face the naked truth of these budget numbers with teachers who take on yet another cut with resignation. They've been through this — or something just as dire — many times before. It is to their enormous credit that they don't just walk out and refuse to return until the situation changes.

They remind me of that knight in the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." The one who comes out raring for a fight and gets his arm chopped off. Blood spews from the shoulder, but he retains every bit of cockiness taunting his opponent to continue. And so it is with our teachers saying, "I can teach these kids! I can teach these kids!" Whack goes the other arm and still they keep coming back. We laugh while the legs are cut and blood is pouring from where every appendage once was.

But this is not a joke. These are our kids, the people we're supposed to be preparing to cure cancer or end global warming or educate the next generation. These are our kids, the education of whom is our government's top priority as stated in the Washington Constitution: "It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders."

This notion that we might get around to fully funding our constitutional obligation by 2018 is ludicrous. By the time we start, we've already lost an entire generation. I say to Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, bully for your income-tax proposal, but keep the other taxes as well, because we can't afford revenue neutrality and the cuts you are pushing down the pipeline.

And I say to Seattle Public Schools, shame on you for putting us in this situation. For slashing, with no warning, the school counselor positions. For denying federal Title I support for kids who need it when you closed schools and shifted student populations.

I've heard the stern lectures that adequate funding does not correlate directly with student performance. But I also know what you get when the money isn't there. You get what you pay for.

Janet Pelz is a writer and public-affairs consultant with two children in Seattle Public Schools.

SolvayGirl1972 said...

Just more reasons why those who can will flee to private schools, homeschooling and out-of-district—or move all together.

This is no excellence for all at SPS; there is barely excellence for some. Yes, state funding is an issue, but so is the gross incompetence of much of what comes out of the Central Office. The growth in CA cannot be ignored.

I worry very much about the state of this city if the public school system is allowed to stay on its present course. I for one, am tired of writing letters and emails, or signing petitions and attending presentations. I can only imagine how burned out the true advocates are (Charlie, Melissa, et al.).

hjballard said...

Just to add some salt into the wound..be aware Seattle that Whitman MS has "opted" to eliminate ESA counselors at the middle school. They would be replaced by an added administrator and two certified teachers who are not counselors. The extra money saved would go to the school. This was all proposed and completed in less than 3 days. No one had any clue about this coming down. Parents at Whitman arent even aware of it. It was all rammed through a staff meeting without our union around to support us. The previous posts are correct, there are many issues for students and families when you bring a thousand people together into a school. Its simplistic to state that others who have no experience or training could do the same. They havent and they wont in the future. This is why the state placed counselors in the schools to begin with. Get the word out to middle school counselors this could happen in their building.