Counseling in Crisis?
State of Idaho officials have been pounding the drum recently for their self-imposed target of 60% of students achieving some form of post-secondary degree by the year 2020. Improving the “go-on” rate and ensuring that Idaho children are prepared for college and/or career are admirable goals, but do we have the resources and infrastructure to get there? Counseling of students is an especially important piece of the puzzle in this endeavor, but budget cuts and a lack of prioritization have threatened to scuttle these well-intentioned plans to prepare Idaho students for life after high school. In this cover story, the IEA Reporter examines the past, present and future of counseling in Idaho schools.
(Please see bottom of page for resources on college and career counseling, advanced opportunities programs in Idaho, and websites of professional counseling organizations.)
A Double Whammy
A growing need and decreased funding have converged over the last five to eight years, putting further stress on the people and resources needed to address a pressing issue—preparing Idaho students for life after high school. The economic downturn starting in 2008 led to drastic budget and personnel cuts at both the state and local levels. At the same time, Idaho businesses and higher education institutions were clamoring for people with new and better skill sets, along with the education and training that would enable them to transition into the workplace or the classroom.
The West Ada (previously Meridian) school district is just one example of the extreme measures that were taken during the recession. “Funding for career counseling was cut completely,” says IEA member and certified counselor Erin Fischer. “It is just being put back into the budget this year.” Similar tales can be found all around the state, with small and rural districts where college and career resources are at a premium to begin with, having been especially hard hit.
Parents and students have had to scramble to find the resources and information they need to make important decisions about their futures. The state has created programs where students can use online and advanced classes, and dual credit courses with state colleges, to streamline the process of completing high school and moving on to college. But word about these programs has been slow to spread, and they have yet to reach their full potential for assisting students. Counselors and teachers are increasingly frustrated with large class sizes and dwindling staff as a result of budget cuts coinciding with growing enrollment.
While circumstances vary among districts, the common thread in recent years has been heaping more and more responsibility on counselors, while resources have remained static or have been reduced. In many cases counselors have been asked to take on a wide range of duties in other areas, limiting their ability to utilize their professional training and work directly on helping students.
“Counselors are charged with myriad tasks, and as I speak to them in the field I get the clear impression that they are overwhelmed,” says Matt McCarter, Director of Student Engagement and Post-Secondary Readiness with the Idaho State Department of Education. There is a lot piled on them and counselors have become a catch-all in too many districts.”
Instead of being able to devote their time and energy to college and career counseling, as well as “whole child” support, many counselors find themselves tasked with overseeing the new state-mandated ISAT by SBAC tests and SAT for high school juniors, coordinating Advanced Placement tests, managing online education, lunch and recess monitoring, before and after school duties, and a variety of other roles. “With the implementation of Advanced Opportunities by the state, the number of online courses being taken by students in the middle and high school levels is rising at a significant rate,” notes Rick Jones, now in his 10th year as a counselor at Coeur d’Alene High School. “The school counselor is typically tasked with assisting students in these programs.”
The American School Counselor Association provides guidelines for what activities are appropriate to be handled by counselors and what are not. See their chart at https://www.schoolcounselor.org/asca/media/asca/home/appropriate-activities-of-school-counselors.pdf)
The raw numbers also tell a disturbing story. The ASCA recommends a counselor-to-student ratio of 1 to 250. “The reality in Idaho is that ratios run 1 to 400 or higher, depending on the school,” says Jones. “It is very hard to get know your students in that kind of a situation.” At Desert Sage Elementary School in Meridian, Fischer is the only counselor for a school with more than 700 students, 60% of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch.
Will New Legislation Help?
There may be some hope on the horizon for beleaguered counselors and students in need of guidance as they move through their junior high and high school years and take aim on college and/or career goals. The Idaho legislature passed House Bill 313 in 2015, with the intention of providing additional training and resources for schools and districts.
The new legislation was designed largely by Senator Dean Mortimer (R-Idaho Falls), Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and was carried in the house by Representative Julie Van Orden (R-Pingree). The bill is geared toward helping students prepare for the workforce or for a variety of post-secondary education options.
HB 313 has the potential to provide much-needed college and career counseling for students throughout Idaho, and it has the support of the State Department of Education and the State Board of Education. “Both the bill and the process by which we reached agreement on the legislation were intended to provide strong college and career guidance for students,” says Blake Youde, Chief Communications and Legislative Affairs officer for the State Board of Education.
However, the methodology of the new legislation has raised a few questions, as well as a few eyebrows. HB 313 clarifies that districts “may use either certificated counselors and teachers or non-certificated staff to serve as college or career advisors”. That philosophy opens the door for teachers and social workers to take on more of the responsibilities that have tradition been handled by professional trained and certificated counselors. So all parties are trying to navigate the appropriate balance between providing additional support to overloaded counselors, and putting critical advising functions in the hands of people who lack the appropriate training and expertise.
“The education and professional development that counselors receive is invaluable,” notes Jones, who is taking a wait and see attitude on the new legislation. “People that take on a counseling role without the proper training run the risk of missing things, particularly as relates to a big picture evaluation.”
“In order to implore students to see post-secondary education as viable, it needs to be far more than the counseling office that pushes,” says McCarter. “That element of the legislation is a recognition that this needs to be an all-hands-on-deck approach”.
Not an unusual sticking point in the state of Idaho is the fact that HB 313 is currently an unfunded mandate. Although $2.5 million was recommended to get the counseling initiative off the ground, the legislature did not appropriate any funding during the 2015 session. However, Van Orden and others are optimistic that getting the bill passed is a significant first step. “We were able to add counseling as a line item in the budget, so we don’t have to pass a new bill in the next session,” she says. “My number one goal is to keep the bill in the forefront and make sure that it is funded in 2016.”
A Paradigm Shift?
There is substantial agreement that in addition to funding and legislation, a change in mindset is critical to improving the counseling and guidance that Idaho students receive.
Bob Lokken is an accomplished businessman, CEO of WhiteCoud Analytics and Chair of the subcommittee on structural change that morphed out of the Governor’s Task Force on Improving Education. “A critical part of this, particularly in rural Idaho, is that there isn’t a cognitive sense of the importance of post-secondary education for the future,” he says. “Somebody needs to be talking to kids early in their high school years about what their aspirations are.”
Jones and McCarter both advocate for a philosophy of working backward from students’ goals and objectives, and getting an early start on planning to reach them. “We need to work with kids to identify where they want to be after high school, and then help them to figure out what kind of education and training they need to get there, what schools might be a good fit, and what it takes to get into those schools,” Jones says.
“Building road maps for our students’ futures is very important,” notes McCarter. “There is a certain amount of reverse engineering involved, where we have to figure out what the hot jobs are and then move students down the pathway where they have the skills and education for those jobs.”
The growing realization that counseling plays a pivotal role in the academic achievement and life success of students is encouraging, but follow through will be required to bring about real progress. “The Idaho Education Association urges the legislature to fund HB 313 as quickly as possible,” says IEA President Penni Cyr. “Just as importantly, we hope that everyone involved will continue to recognize how valuable our highly-trained school counselors are and the tremendous benefit that their expertise provides for Idaho students.”
By Dave Harbison
Advanced Opportunities Programs through the Idaho State Department of Education
The formal Counseling Model from the State of Idaho
Idaho Career Information System (CIS)
American School Counselor Association
National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC)