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Fixing Minnesota’s school counselor crunch: If not now, say advocates, then when?

When it comes to school counselors, Minnesota has one of the worst ratios in the country  — one counselor for every 792 students. 

When Iyanna King, left, transferred to North her freshman year after having a baby, counselor Derek Francis homed in on her potential to get caught up so she could still graduate with her peers.
MinnPost photo by Tony Nelson

Derek Francis, the only school counselor for 320 students at Minneapolis’ North High School, knows that in order to support students academically, he first needs to connect with them on a personal level. If students’ basic needs aren’t met, they’re less likely to be able to focus in the classroom.

So when Iyanna King, 17, transferred to North her freshman year after having a baby, Francis homed in on her potential to get caught up so she could still graduate with her peers. She was eight classes behind and on the verge of giving up. But after meeting every week to work through barriers — like learning how to proactively ask her teachers for help and reconfiguring her schedule so she could make up required courses in lieu of electives  — she ended up exceeding her own expectations.

“When you have a child in high school, you really get discouraged and think you can’t do certain things, like go to college,” King said. “He really made me feel that I had a future.”

Not only has she made the honor roll twice, she’s also hopeful about the college application she has submitted. Inspired by an African-American history elective she’s currently enrolled in, she now wants to study education at college so she can one day teach the very things she’s now learning.

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Relationships are key to Francis’ success as a counselor for a student body that’s nearly 90 percent African-American, in a school where 87 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.   

Now in his fourth year at North, Francis believes the approach he takes to supporting students’ academic performance has played a direct role in improving projected graduation rates — largely by making sure their underlying social and emotional needs are being met so they can get their assignments done on time.

Two years ago, only 38 percent of incoming 12th-graders were on track to graduate. This year, 91 percent are on track — an improvement Minneapolis Public Schools’ lead counselor, Jim Bierma, says Francis took a lead role in achieving. 

Those result are all the more impressive given that, according to the American School Counselor Association, Francis and his colleagues shouldn’t be accountable for more than 250 students each. But Francis’ situation is also a common one: On average, Minnesota only has one counselor for every 792 students — a ratio that places it close to the bottom of the barrel among states. 

While it’s not a proud title, it’s one Minnesota has donned for more than a decade, a reality that has left many who have advocated for more school counselors wondering: If now is not the time to fix the problem, then when?

A tool for narrowing the achievement gap

In the wake of a proposal passed by the state Senate last year — though not by the House — Gov. Mark Dayton visited Mankato last Friday to hear from student support professionals before heading into session this March. “If you take care of the emotional needs of children, then they’re in a position to learn,” he said at the event. “But the emotion health and well-being really precedes the ability to be successful in the academics.”

In a year when the state has a large budget surplus, advocates are pushing to secure supplemental funding to support Sen. Susan Kent’s Student Support Services Personnel Act, with counselors and others laying out what’s at stake if students don’t get the support services they need. “Kids are forced to wait to get services. And student counselors are forced to triage, as if they’re in an emergency-room situation,” Dawnette Cigrand, president of the Minnesota School Counselors Association, said, noting many rural districts and elementary schools are currently dealing with limited to no counselor resources. 

School counselors play a pivotal role in helping schools combat the achievement gap. This often translates into working with students to make sure they’re taking the right classes and any necessary accommodations are being made with the cooperation of teachers.

In some schools, this means responding to the unique needs of a growing immigrant student population.

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At Eden Prairie High School, school counselor Eric Motzko recalls working with an immigrant who enrolled three years ago without any English language skills. He carved out time for parent and teacher meetings — amidst his 410-student caseload — to figure out how she could still be academically challenged while learning the language. Now in her senior, year, she’s taking college courses through Normandale and “kicking butt,” Motzko said.

“My job is to figure out how that individual student can navigate through the high school system and make it their own. Each student’s strengths and hurdles are completely different. My job is to play off those and support them.”

At North, Francis recalls one of his male students who was struggling to balance sports practice and game time with his homework responsibilities. The two of them worked out a study plan that would set the student up for success so he could recover from failing a few classes and continue to play sports.

“For students, that’s a skill you can learn. Once you go to college, you may have a job that’s taking up some hours after school, so learning to prioritize your time, that’s a life skill,” Francis said.

Social and emotional safety net

Many students struggle, at some point in time, to articulate social and emotional issues that are impeding their ability to excel academically, whether it be anxiety from being spread too thin or relationship issues or suicidal thoughts.  

Counselors’ efforts to address these underlying concerns don’t get publicly acknowledged because such conversations with students are cloaked in confidentiality.

Having worked as a school counselor for Roseville Area Schools for more than 20 years and served as a state representative, Tom Tillberry knows counselors are sitting on a gold mine of powerful untold stories that could illustrate how all students stand to benefit from spending adequate time with a counselor.

Without naming names, he has a go-to story that underscores his point. Tillberry once had a high school student come into his office to confide that the student had been taking 3 a.m. calls from a friend who was sharing suicidal thoughts. The pressure of feeling like a sole lifeline was having a serious impact on that student’s own well-being. After talking through next steps, Tillberry says the student found a sense of relief.

“Just think, if you’re put in a spot where you’re basically the only thing keeping that other kid from committing suicide, at least in your mind, you can’t function [because] you don’t know when the next phone call or text message will come,” he said, knowing something like this could very likely fly under the radar of most parents.

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Career readiness

Beyond seeing students through to graduation, counselors are also tasked with taking the lead on postsecondary and career readiness.

When their schedules are filled with more urgent needs, like students who need help with an eating disorder or are failing classes, it’s hard for them to find the time to properly walk each student through their post-graduation options. With a looming work-force shortage of more than 100,000 workers by 2020 in Minnesota, however, Tillberry says he’s surprised we haven’t beefed up counselor resources in our schools already.

He talks about one of his male students who was middle-of-the road academically, but reluctant to attend his own graduation ceremony. The two spent a lot of time exploring possible career paths when he was still in school, and he went on to join the Marines.

“You look at him today and he’s a trained person to go out and rescue people in the water,” Tillberry said.

He was happy to write recommendations for this student because they had developed such a close relationship. The student, who’s now on a six-year career track, still drops by Tillberry’s office every once in a while to touch base and talk about how excited he is about his future.

Legislative debate over dollars, local control

While most legislators will say they recognize the need to lower student counselors’ caseloads, the field remains vastly underfunded. Back in 2007, Tillberry had succeeded in getting a law passed that required districts to dedicate $3 of a $30-per-pupil Safe School Levy to student support services. It was repealed three years later, however, because of concerns over local control.

But Tillberry says, “We shouldn’t have to tell our kids, ‘You can get services this year because the budget is OK.’ That’s the way it’s kind of been going. No one wants to commit those dollars, but it’s not for a lack of trying.”

Kent’s bill is different from the 2007 law. It would essentially set up a grant matching mechanism for school districts to acquire more funding — matched dollar-for-dollar — to hire more student support personnel, whether it be school counselors, social workers, psychologists, chemical health specialists or nurses. Schools would apply on a voluntary basis and maintain autonomy over who they hire.

In making this funding avenue optional, Kent’s bill skirts the sticky debate over whether education funding for schools should be earmarked for specific resources. Superintendents are under pressure to allocate funds to countless areas of need within their schools, so there’s a strong resistance to having the state tell them what their priorities are.

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But if there doesn’t seem to be any real opposition to Kent’s bill, why the holdup?

Walter Roberts, professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University, Mankato, says it can be chalked up to the hasty wrap up last session.

“I think it was the press of the legislative session and nothing else,” he said. “This is not a bill that there has been vocal opposition to. This is a bill that from every individual I’ve talked to — school superintendents, the different student services groups, legislators — everyone seems to agree that this idea seems to be workable.”

An equity issue

Even if the bill passes and secures some initial state funding, he doesn’t anticipate the counselor shortage will be solved immediately. It is, however, a starting point for districts to be able to identify their needs and start filling those gaps, he says.

“In many respects this is an equity-of-services issue for the kids and families in our state,” he added. “Kids in K-12 schools don’t have equal access to student support personnel.”

Paul Durand, superintendent of Rockford Area Schools — where the student-to-counselor ratios at the elementary, middle school and high school levels range from 500 to 600 students per counselor — still has a few concerns about the proposed bill.

First, given the scarcity of new hires to fill teachers positions in areas like foreign languages and special education, he wonders just how big, exactly, the pool of licensed school counselor candidates truly is.

Not only are rural districts having a tougher time recruiting new talent, but he’s also leery of just how accessible a 50/50 matching grant mechanism would be to districts that are property-poor.

“When you barely have enough [money] to do the mandated stuff, it’s a carrot,” he said. “It’s not that we wouldn’t want to do it. It’s just when you start looking at all the requests you have for funding, where does it fall in the priority [list]?”

Aware of the financial pressures placed on school districts, many, including Cigrand, would prefer to see state funds earmarked specifically for student support personnel.

If passed, Kent’s K-12 bill would at least give educators a starting point in trying to catch up with neighboring states. She has a strong sense that everyone is on board this time around. 

“Our biggest challenge, this session, is we still have the tax bill and the transportation conversations, and those are big things. So it just depends on how that all shakes out,” she said.