More Demands, Fewer Counselors

By April Austin writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 9, 2004 | Go to article overview
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More Demands, Fewer Counselors

April Austin writer of The Christian Science Monitor, 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.

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.

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