School counselors face up to new challenges
Washington — QUIETLY, without fanfare and hoopla in this time of educational ferment, the role of guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, and other specialists who work outside the classroom has been and is undergoing a transformation every bit as intense and comprehensive as school curricula or teacher preparation. With the increase in the incidence of suicides and attempted suicides, drug and alcohol abuse by teen-agers; with the rise in the number of adolescents who live alone and support themselves; with the geometric growth in the number of children from single-parent homes; with the increase in the number of working mothers and the proportionate rise in latchkey children; with the traditional concerns of parents who want their son or daughter to get into the best college or university intensified because of the high cost of such education, new demands and new roles are being added to the traditional responsibilities of guidance counselors.
``The nonacademic complications of adolescence are rising, not vanishing,'' write Eleanor Farrar and Robert Hampel in the December issue of Phi Delta Kappan, a respected education journal. The way in which schools identify and respond to such complications in the lives of students is critical and is evolving rapidly, but far too often it lacks a clear sense of overall direction, the authors state.
What cannot be emphasized enough, says Nancy Hardy, president of the American School Counselor Association, is that school leaders ``must see counseling as an integral part of the school curricula, not as an ancillary service provided to kids with problems.'' When the principal of a building sees counseling in this context, not only the counseling, but also the school itself, tends to be successful, she says.
``Relational and developmental roles are the stuff of counseling,'' says Gary Walz, professor of education at the University of Michigan. ``Many of the other functions counselors may take on are more administrative. It is critical to view the child over time, not just experiencing a crisis and needing help now,'' he says. The guidance curriculum should be ``a series of enriched experiences that carry through outside the school walls and are seen as very worthwhile.''
For Dr. Walz, ``Counseling should give direction and guidance to a child's life.'' What it should not be is ``limited to interventions in crises, because crisis counseling isn't necessarily the best counseling. Like in law, hard cases make bad law,'' he says. ``It is a special relationship that is not conflictive with the parental role, and certainly is not a substitute for the parental role.''
The delivery of social services varies from school to school, is as diverse, is as enriched or impoverished, as the education landscape within which they occur. And there is no ``one'' best way for the right counseling service to reach a given student. What cannot be disputed, Farrar and Hampel say, is that specialization has triumphed over a more generalized counseling role for schools in the past decade.
And along with specialization has come the creation of ad hoc programs to deal with the ``current'' crisis, be it an outbreak of drinking or drug abuse, teen sex, dropping out, gang violence, or the like. Too often the result is ``Balkanization'' of social services in schools, rather than their consolidation or coherent integration with the overall school curricula.
Fear of malpractice lawsuits is one reason blamed for Balkanized services. Many schools, and the guidance profession itself, see various certification requirements for special kinds of counseling as a way around litigation.
But ``Raising our young through the eyes of a legal brief is a malaise on our society,'' Walz says. ``The medical model of responding only to sickness limits people from seeing counselors as proactive.''
Many elementary schools have a child for six years, junior highs for three years, and high schools for three or four years. In each of these school phases a child faces ``growth hurdles,'' ``stretch me'' experiences, Walz says.
A guidance curriculum must address at least three major growth hurdles common to all students, says Ms. Hardy, who is also a junior high counselor in Salt Lake City. The home-to-school transition from kindergarten through fifth grade is the first one. Florida places such weight on this stage of a child's development as to require that each elementary school have a full-time guidance counselor.
The next major school transition is middle school or junior high, where a student goes from one teacher and one class most of the day to many teachers and changing classes many times each day. This is also when career guidance begins, Hardy says. Children are introduced to the world of work, not necessarily a specific job or career, but at least ideas on how to develop a specific interest.
By ninth grade an academic program should be mapped out for each student which takes into account postgraduation careers, whether a student is planning to go to college, into the military, or directly into the work force, Hardy says. In addition, throughout all of a child's school experience the counselor plays a central role in helping a student understand the meaning of all the standardized tests he or she will take.
Hardy says current counselor-to-student ratios are: high school, 1 to 350 or 450 students; junior high school, 1 to 500. There are no national data on elementary schools, she says, with counselors running from one per school to none.
There are three areas in most states where, if there are indications of a problem, a school must take a course of action mandated by law: first and most serious, the mere mention of suicide; second, drug use; third, pregnancy. Other than these three areas, the matching of students and counselors for the most part is very informal.
Far and away one of the most difficult tasks counselors face is working with ``at risk'' youth or potential dropouts, says Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States. With national estimates of 1 out of 3 youths in such a category, schools, especially urban schools, face a monumental task of redefining the counseling function.
Osmunda Larson fits the ``at risk'' profile. She dropped out of her Minnesota high school. A few years later, she completed a high school equivalency degree, a pattern common to half the nation's high school dropouts.
The way Miss Larson looked at the world (and her punk hairstyle certainly accented her look), neither the teachers, the students, nor the counselors wanted her in school. And in her youthful naivet'e and rebelliousness, that was fine with her. She wouldn't come. She dropped out.
In retrospect, she regrets having dropped out. But she still holds some bitterness toward the adults at her school who she feels did not help, even though she herself made it hard for anyone to help her. ``You have to be happy with yourself. You can't expect people to be happy with you if you're not happy with yourself,'' she says. But ``I was the kid. Someone should have reached out to me.''
Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.