Too many kids, too few counselors in nation’s schools

/ 28 May 2012 / jennifer

TJ Jerke, Grand Forks Herald, May 28, 2012 –

Minnesota faces a shortage of school counselors and those who remain must work with more students than ever, according to the Minnesota Association of School Counselors.

The average ratio of students to counselors in the state is 771 to 1, among the highest ratio in the country, according to the American School Counselor Association. The national average is 459 to 1.

It’s a staggering set of data that Minnesota counselors say lead schools to neglect troubled students.

“School districts have cut counselors because it doesn’t impact class size ratios,” said Judith Comstock, president of the Northwest Minnesota Counselors Association. “But by not helping students when they are young deal with issues, it can lead to more problems, some even long-term.”

School counselors are on the front lines, trying to help students to head off problems before a crisis occurs. But suicides by two public school students in southeast Minnesota this spring called new attention to what advocates say are gaps in mental health services in the state’s schools.

East Grand Forks School District easily falls into the statewide average with a district-wide student population of about 1,700 and two counselors, one each at the middle school and senior high school, ac-cording to Superintendent David Pace.

“It’s a high need, high-demand job,” Pace said. “And when we look at finances and school funding, the rationale would be that dollars go into the classroom, and secondary things added on have a tendency to suffer, and that’s why the ratio has grown so much.”

North Dakota’s ratio is 327 to 1. Arizona, the state with the worst ratio, has 815 to 1. Wyoming, the state with the best ratio, has 183 to 1.

Other staff

Comstock, a counselor at Cass Lake Bena Middle School, took an early retirement from Bemidji High School as a result of its high student-to-counselor ratio.

With more time spent doing administrative work she was unable to speak with students about personal issues, she said. “I was working a lot of hours and not doing much counseling,” she said. “Your time is limited when kids are lined up outside your door wanting to take care of various things.”

Bemidji Superintendent James Hess said the ratios can be misleading since every counseling-related position is not included in the total. He said they should be since they all are available to work with student issues.

During the 2010-2011 school year, he said the district offered two counselors, 4.5 social workers and three school psychologists.

“I think we have a number of great support staff, but I don’t think we can ever have enough people to help students in need,” he said. “We’re making a good attempt, but it would be nice to put more people behind the students for support.”

East Grand Forks School District also has counseling-related positions with two full-time social workers and a part-time mental-health professional, whose postion is funded by a county grant.


But while Pace contends funding is the largest issue, he said the extra education needed to be a certified counselor may contribute to part of the problem. The master’s degree-level education and qualifications may be hindering students from going into the field, he said.

Robert Stenson, a counselor at Franklin Middle School in Thief River Falls, attributed the shortage of counselors to the relationship between the state Legislature and school districts.

The issue has been discussed the last few years in the Legislature, said Stenson, who is in charge of government relations for NMCA. When there is talk about guaranteed funding, school districts have resisted because they tend to come with a state mandate, he said.

“Local school boards want to control dollars they have to work with,” Stenson said. “They want to put funding where they think the needs of the district are.”

Thief River Falls is not reflective of the state average, he said, as he sees about 160 as the only middle school counselor. The two high school counselors have about 300 students each.