The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 12, 2014

Our View: Schools need more counselors

Why it matters: Counselors are key to helping students succeed academically and socially

The Mankato Free Press

---- — Most parents would wince at the counselor-to-student ratios in schools statewide and in the Mankato area.

Knowing that their child might be in a line of 400 students locally or 700 in some parts of the state to see one counselor would, to most parents, not seem reasonable.

Minnesota has a school counselor ratio of 1 to 792 students, a ranking of 48 th in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Education. It’s a terrible record and one that all of Minnesotans should want to improve quickly.

A recent in-depth report by The Free Press detailed a heavy workload for counselors in the Mankato Public Schools. The ratio of counselors is one for every 475 students. The school district also has six social workers and eight school psychologists to help meet varying needs of students.

But one elementary counselor has 775 students assigned to her. A junior high counselor has 522 students. High school counselors have 350 to 400 students. Smaller school districts in the Mankato region have ratios that are even higher.

School counselor-to-student ratios should be closer to 250 to 1, according to the American School Counselor Association.

To their credit, the school counselors interviewed for The Free Press story all say they remain positive about their role and do as much as they can with the students they see and the resources they have. They’re not throwing up their hands because of the low ratios, but they also see a real need for more counselors and their arguments are reasonable.

School counselors are the first line of defense for students who might stray. They can advise on academics and some of the less serious social problems, but they also must balance the needs of all. While dealing with one student’s social needs, they also have to pay attention to the college goals of other students.

Mankato schools have been somewhat proactive by having the school psychologists and social workers on hand to backstop counselors and handle more serious problems.

And there are serious problems with kids in a social and economic environment that seems to be getting tougher every year. Some kids in school must deal with poverty and homelessness. These problems obviously exacerbate the issues with academics and eventual graduation.

Poverty is not just a blip in the Mankato area. Blue Earth County’s poverty rate was last calculated at almost 17 percent, about sixth highest in the state. Nicollet County’s poverty level was 10 percent. Hundreds of students are served by the BackPack Food program where they receive food to take home every weekend because their families can’t afford it.

Teachers also have their hands full. They’re dealing in the classroom with more students who have special needs and behavioral problems. They cannot be teachers and counselors as may have been the case in the past. New testing requirements take more teaching time. There are new reports to fill out for assessments and school accountability.

The Mankato district was proactive several years ago by placing counselors in elementary schools. The elementary counselors note that they help students focus on learning and their daily lessons but also must deal with students who may have mental health problems like depression and anxiety. They work on preventing problems from getting insurmountable.

These are the burdens that have come to rest on public education. Counselors can ease these burdens but also prevent bad things from happening to at risk students. Without an education, those students will simply struggle even more in life on everything from getting a job to being self-sufficient. Education is an investment in human capital for the long run. Counselors are key players.

Taxpayers who don’t have kids in school should also be concerned about extremely high student-to-counselor ratios. They’re funding education and when those students are not getting the most education for the dollar, all taxpayers lose.

The Legislature increased the school funding formula last year. Some of that money should be used by schools to hire more counselors. The Legislature should also put counselors as a priority for future funding decisions.