More demands, fewer counselors

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Welcome to Jan Tkaczyk's world. The director of guidance and her staff of four tend to the welfare of 700 students at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School in Harwich, Mass.

Ms. Tkaczyk (pronounced ta-KAY-zick) starts a typical Wednesday with a 7:15 meeting with the school nurse, dean, and campus security to discuss students they are concerned about. At 8, she steps into the special education office to meet with a family making changes to an education plan. At 9, Tkaczyk talks with two girls jealously feuding over a boy in their class. She holds a meeting with her guidance staff at 10, and then squeezes in conferences with three students. At lunchtime, she answers myriad questions at a table set up daily in the cafeteria. Her afternoon concludes with office tasks, returning parent phone calls, writing letters of recommendation, and giving a prospective student a tour.

The job of a high school guidance counselor is only getting tougher. Budget deficits have forced districts in cities such as San Jose, Calif., Greenville S.C.; Yonkers, N.Y.; and Chicago to cut counseling jobs.

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Many more districts have not been able to hire additional counselors, or have cut counselors' hours. Caseloads in some states are staggering: California averages one counselor for 971 students, the worst ratio in the country.

"When school boards are faced with a decision to cut a counselor or a teacher, they go with the law. The law says that a teacher has to be in the classroom," says Joe Dear of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Educators worry that, especially in poorer districts, fewer counselors will mean fewer advocates for students. Counselors often provide a safety net for kids at risk for behavior problems, poor grades, or dropping out. And many times they make the crucial difference for disadvantaged students as they maneuver the maze of college admissions and scholarship applications.

But the school counselor's role is not well understood, especially when contrasted with the better-defined jobs of classroom teacher or school psychologist. Principals, already strapped and looking for help, may pull in a counselor to administer tests, substitute teach, take attendance, or do lunchroom or bus duty.

"Everybody else [in a school] has their functions pretty well defined," says Dr. Dear, "so that leaves the guidance counselor" to pick up the slack. In the case of clerical work, Dear says, administrators should realize they're paying counselors too much to have them push paper.

More than 90 percent of counselors have master's degrees, and most are also required by their states to have counseling certification. While their salaries are comparable to teachers', they rise a bit faster.

Counselors' groups are working to encourage schools to adopt professional standards. The American School Counselor Association last month updated its set of standards, which emphasizes the student-advocate role.

"Principals need to understand what we do," says Delores Curry, a guidance counselor at Bloomington High School in Bloomington, Calif. "They set the tone. If they don't understand our role, we may not be able to help students to our fullest potential."

The model has shifted dramatically from the days when a counselor met individually with students several times a year to hammer out schedules and strategize over college applications.

Because of the large numbers of teens assigned to them, guidance counselors have become more like gatekeepers, guiding students toward social and academic resources. They're more likely to offer a group guidance session or career development workshops. And they rely heavily on technology to help students in their college searches.

Technology can help narrow the search, but it can't replace a counselor's personal touch, says Lorna Hunter, vice president for enrollment management at Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I. "Guidance counselors understand the subtleties of how a student's personality will mesh with different college environments," she says in an e-mail. "That's not something a student can assess from a website."

But that personal touch is nearly gone from big public schools. It can still be found, however, in smaller ones and in private schools.

More than 90 percent of the students at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn., go on to college, says Rosita Fernandez-Rojo, who heads the college-counseling office. The five members of her staff each have a caseload of about 55 to 60 students. Her team can focus exclusively on college matters because a separate counseling group handles mental-health issues.

Also, some Choate parents are willing to pay for additional college counseling from outside consultants - a growing trend among families who can afford such services.

But educators worry that this development will only widen the divide between the haves and have-nots.

In Chicago, for example, 40 percent of the city's graduating class of 2000 said that they had received no help from faculty or counselors with college applications. The city averages about one counselor for every 360 students (the national recommendation is 250 students). Another survey of four predominately Latino high schools in Chicago found that 27 percent had never even met their counselor.

"We need to do a better job improving access and equality for all our students," says Ms. Curry.

The crunch is likely to intensify in the next 15 years as enrollments rise and more counselors reach retirement age.

"High schools must recognize the importance of counselors to the selection process," says Hunter. "They should provide this essential resource for their students."

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