Will we make wise use of $12M for school counselors, support staff?

Like many readers, I attended a high school where each counselor worked with hundreds of students. That meant that we talked only a few times. And, as I’ll explain later, I think this counselor gave me bad advice.
The issue comes up because Minnesota legislators decided this year to invest about $12 million to help Minnesota public schools increase the number of school counselors and other support staff. The state has just announced grants to 77 schools and districts that will help them provide more individual attention and assistance to students.
Mostly what I remember about my high school counselor is that he discouraged me from applying to the college that most interested me. Fortunately, despite his advice, I applied and was accepted.
Walter Roberts, a professor from Minnesota State University, Mankato who teaches counseling, has been encouraging the state to invest in counseling so that more students have a better experience with their counselors than I did.
I think Roberts is a model professor because along with teaching classes, researching and writing, he’s deeply involved with K-12 educators. For example, he’s helped schools reduce bullying and helped lead a successful challenge to questionable demands on high schools from the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
For many years Roberts and others have pointed out that Minnesota has one of the nation’s worst student-counselor ratios. According to a state press release, Minnesota currently ranks 47th among the 50 states, with one counselor for every 792 students.
This year legislators made improving this ratio a priority, providing grants for up to six years. The state will match district funds, dollar for dollar during the first four years. In the fifth and sixth years, districts must provide $3 for every dollar from the state.
Roberts told me via email: “This legislation shows what happens when everyone plays well together in the sandbox! It was the result of a coalition effort led by the Minnesota School Counselors Association among all the student support professionals — school counselors, school social workers, school nurses, and school psychologists. The coalition brought chemical dependency counselors into the mix because we know that the need exists in some instances for students to have access to their expertise. … The legislation was planned from the beginning to provide school districts the option of adding whichever professional position they thought necessary as opposed to a mandate of some kind, which flies in the face of local control.”
The state respected this philosophy. According to the state’s press release, the $12 million will help support 40 school counselors, 21 school social workers, seven chemical dependency counselors, six school psychologists, and three school nurses. A list of schools receiving funding is available here: http://bit.ly/2foDzQO.
Here’s how some districts will spend the money.

North Branch Area High School received $173,100 in grant dollars over a six-year period. Pat Tepoorten, the district’s community relations coordinator, told me, “The high school has not had a social worker prior to this grant.”
Superintendent Deb Henton wrote via email: “We are very excited to see these funds coming to North Branch Area High School. It allows us to provide a full-time service to students we had been unable to before and comes at a time when mental health issues are on the rise nationwide.”

Jason Mielke, C.E. Jacobson Elementary principal, explained that the Rush City School District received $151,000 to hire a school counselor at C.E. Jacobson Elementary School. He pointed out: “C.E. Jacobson does not have a school counselor for the nearly 550 students we see throughout the week. As mental health needs arise, we felt the need to have a service available for our kids to help them be successful socially, emotionally and academically. We were both extremely excited and relieved! The excitement is just the overjoy we feel to be able to provide services to kids in need, and the relief comes from finally having the ability to refer our students and parents to a mental health service right here in our building on a daily basis.”

The state announced that Princeton Public Schools would receive about $224,181 over six years. Superintendent Julia Espe explained: “Last year, guidance services for the Online Academy and Educational Options at Accurate Home Care were provided by the guidance counselors assigned to each building. It was an additional duty. With the addition of the Area Learning Center, it was decided that the Student Services Department needed our own guidance counselor. This would be considered a new position in our district. Therefore, we were allowed to pursue the grant to offset a portion of the costs for this position for the next six years. Tami Duke was assigned to this new position. She has previously served students at Princeton High School.”
Espe concluded: “We are very happy to have this position to support students in our Student Services Department. It is a nice first step in supporting our students. We appreciate the grant.”
Certainly, $12 million can help many students. However, I have two concerns about the grants.
First, it’s not clear what will happen if a school does not make progress after two or three years on goals described in its application. The application required schools to measure progress in at least two of five areas: school climate, attendance, academic achievement, career and college readiness and postsecondary completion rates. What happens if after a few years, the new staff members have not been able to help make the school safer, reduce fighting and bullying, increase graduation rates or have some other clear impact?
Secondly, I hope the Minnesota Department of Education, a university or some other group will convene meetings to discuss what researchers and schools have found are the best ways to use counselors, social workers or other support people to reach specific goals.
For example, I visited a high school in Harlem several years ago that made sure each junior and senior met in a very small group every two weeks with a school counselor. This significantly increased the number of students being admitted to and entering one-, two- or four-year college programs and resulted in a big increase in scholarships.
We need to use support staff wisely and ensure that they encourage, rather than discourage, as my counselor did years ago. Being clear about goals, using dollars wisely and assessing progress will make that $12 million matter.
Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]

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