Narrowing the gap

Michael Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

Over the past week, many school systems have been taking part in a social media campaign that promotes the work of school counselors. According to the American School Counselor Association, many people — even some school administrators — may not understand the true role of a school counselor. “Gone are the days of school counselors sitting in their office simply handing out college applications, making schedule changes for students who want to drop a class or meeting with the troublemakers in the school,” says the group’s website.

Oklahoma State Department of Education superintendent Joy Hofmesiter last week said one specific goal for this year will begin ramping up the number of counselors in public schools. “The needs have deepened, but we are still needing to keep pace with that need,” she told lawmakers. “Closing the gap between our students and counselors has been a priority of my administration.”

According to data from the OSDE, the ratio of students to school counselors in 2019 was 430-to-1 and is projected to drop to 421-to-1 in 2020 if the proposed budget request is approved by lawmakers. Those ratios are similar to the national average of 441-to-1 in 2015, according to the latest data from the ASCA, but well above that group’s recommendation and Hofmeister’s target of 250-to-1.

In order to reach that target ratio, education officials have laid out a three-year plan to invest $57.4 million in hiring 1,100 new counselors statewide. The proposed budget request would seek to hire 366 counselors within a year if the $19.2 million line item is approved. “There will be a great need for academic counselors as well as for those with licensed professional counselor credentials,” Hofmeister said.

According to the ASCA, counselors in elementary, middle and high schools each have a different focus. For example, an elementary school counselor will deal with early childhood development while a middle school counselor will have a bigger role in adolescent development. High school counselors will often have additional academic knowledge for postsecondary education options.

“They help all students in the areas of academic achievement, personal/social development and career development, ensuring today's students become the productive, well-adjusted adults of tomorrow,” the ASCA says. School counselors must not be assigned to another student or staff support roles however.

For example, counselors should be advising school administrators about academic planning rather than setting a school’s master schedule. Counselors should also be working with teachers and principals to resolve student issues or problems rather than assisting principals or assigning discipline to students.

“I believe in this day and age our children and youth need as many positive adults in their lives as possible, so the thought of additional assistance in this area is encouraging,” said Lone Grove Public Schools Superintendent Meri Jayne Miller in an email. With a student-to-counselor ratio of 365-to-1, Lone Grove’s ratio is better than the state average. But to meet Hofmeister’s target ratio, Lone Grove schools would still need two additional counselors.

“Counselors are really hard to find,” said Dickson Public Schools superintendent Jeff Colclasure. He believes fewer students enter the field because the master’s degree to become a certified counselor is expensive and rigorous considering what many counseling positions actually pay. According to the OSDE, the average salary for Oklahoma school counselors, including benefits, is $60,905 this school year.

Local districts are already using local resources to address the issue. For example, two certified Dickson counselors are supplemented by an interventionist as part of a pilot program launched earlier in the school year to provide support for victims of childhood trauma. If the interventionist is factored into the equation, the 449-to-1 ratio of students to counselors puts Dickson schools on par with the state average, based on last year’s enrollment.

That is not the case in other parts of the state as some counselors have been moved into the classroom in an effort to deal with the shortage of certified teachers. While 880 licensed school counselors are currently working in Oklahoma schools, OSDE data says 526 of them—nearly 60%—are working in the classroom rather than in full-time counseling positions. Hofmeister told lawmakers during last week’s budget hearing that the requested funds would help add staff to move those counselors out of the classroom.

At Plainview Public Schools, five counselors provide support to 1,535 students, according to superintendent Karl Stricker. While also better than the state’s average ratio, two additional counselors would be necessary to meet the 250-to-1 ratio of students-to-counselors. Stricker said his district would definitely consider adding additional counseling staff if money were made available from the state.

The proposed state funding would be in the form of competitive grants to school districts, based on need, to pay for additional counselors.

As the ASCA wraps up their 2020 National School Counseling Week, the highlight of school counselors may fade but the need will continue to grow. Lawmakers are expected to make a further decision on the education budget request before March.