California has historically invested in school counselors. It is enough?

Alison Yin for EdSource

California has one of the highest student-to-advisor ratios in the country.

For the first time in more than a decade, California invested significantly in school counselors last year as the pandemic sparked a mental health crisis among young people. But even with more money and a rising need, California’s school student-to-advisor ratio nationally is still near the bottom.

According to the national ranking released last month by the American School Counselor Association, California schools have an average of 527 students for each counselor, more than double the recommended ratio of 250-to-1. Only five states had fewer counselors per student.

Still, that’s a big improvement from the early 2000s, when California had nearly 1,000 students per tutor and was last of the 50 states on the list. School districts have since gradually hired more counselors, leveraging funds from the Local Control Funding Formula and more recently the $20 billion windfall for schools in last year’s state budget.

But it’s still not enough, and too many students aren’t getting the help they need, especially during the pandemic, said Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors. California has been short of counseling and mental health services for so long that substantial shifts in district counseling staff could take years.

Part of the problem, she said, is low expectations. Decades of underfunding have left students, families, administrators and school boards unaware of all the services counselors can provide: academic and career counseling, mental health support for students and teachers, academic counseling, working on equality and school climate issues, in addition to other tasks . Numerous studies have linked student mental well-being with higher test scores, attendance and graduation rates, and fewer suspensions and expulsions.

“We do what we know. California schools have no roots in adequately funding student support services. … So we don’t know what we don’t know,” Whitson said. “What is possible under a fully staffed school counselor is simply unimaginable.”

Another obstacle, Whitson said, is that almost no counselors serve on school boards or as administrators. Most high-level district leaders come from the ranks of teachers or have never attended a school with sufficient guidance staff. So maybe they don’t prioritize counseling or even have a full understanding of the counselors’ duties.

Paul Meyers, superintendent of the Standard Elementary School District near Bakersfield and a former adviser to the California Department of Education, said politics often plays a role in whether a district funds counselors. Conservative-inclined boards are less likely to invest in services they consider “fluff,” he said.

But when they get data, board members can change their mind, he said. Ten years ago, when he started in Standard, in one of California’s most conservative areas, the 3,000th student district had a counselor and two psychologists. He convinced the board to hire another counselor, and after seeing the improvements in attendance, academic performance, and discipline, they agreed to hire more. Now the district has three counselors and six psychologists.

“If students, parents and educators see the value of having counselors on campus, the board will listen,” Meyers said.

A similar transformation took place in El Rancho Unified, an 8,000-student district in eastern Los Angeles County. In 2009, the district received a grant to strengthen mental health services, based on the long waiting lists at the community agencies to which the district referred students. Mental health care was desperately needed at the time, when violence in the community increased and many students suffered from trauma and stress.

With the grant money, the district hired more counselors, trained teachers, did outreach to families, and established partnerships with a variety of organizations, including the University of Southern California, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and the California Department of Education.

The scholarship expired after a few years, but the results were so remarkable that the board agreed to continue funding counselors and other mental health services. Now the predominantly Latino district near Whittier has 13 mental health counselors, 10 school counselors and 22 graduate student interns, giving the district a student-to-counselor ratio of 177-to-1, one of the lowest in California . It has also worked to reduce the stigma sometimes associated with therapy, especially among parents.

The Rancho District recently won a Golden Bell award from the California School Boards Association for its efforts.

“It started with a scholarship, but now we can’t imagine it not being,” said Chief Inspector Frances Esparza. “We try to remove barriers for students. Any student can walk in and get help at any time. It is embedded in the school culture.”

More than 1,400 El Rancho students each year receive some form of mental health care, either by talking directly to a counselor or through a classroom.

The focus on counseling and mental health has paid off. El Rancho has attendance, discipline, and graduation rates above the state average. A pre-pandemic study of college students’ mental health found that less than 10% of college students said they were depressed or anxious enough to need follow-up care.

Elk Grove Unified, one of the state’s largest districts with 64,000 students, has also made mental health a priority. The Sacramento County district has 103 counselors, 66 psychologists, 13 social workers, 25 mental health therapists, and 26 behavioral specialists.

“We believe healthy learning is linked to a healthy body and mind,” said district spokesman Xanthi Soriano. “Given the social unrest of the past coupled with the current public health crisis, our students need a strong and dedicated team of professionals who can provide academic and mental health support to help students thrive academically and socially.”

California does not require districts to hire counselors, and there is wide variation in how districts provide mental health and counseling services. Ceres Unified, near Modesto, has only one licensed counselor, but more than 70 staff members who work directly with students in academic and career counseling, mental health, and other duties that usually fall within a counselor’s job descriptions.

Some of those people, such as psychologists, have student care diplomas and higher degrees, while others, including “student support specialists,” have bachelor’s degrees and no diploma or license. Some employees combine their advisory tasks with administrative tasks or concentrate on just one task, such as social skills.

Hiring uncertified staff can save money. A recent job posting for a student support specialist in Ceres advertised the salary between $20 and $25 per hour, or $41,000 to $52,000 per year. Certified counselors typically earn double.

But the combination of duties and hiring of unqualified staff gives the district the flexibility to hire more staff and deploy them when and where they are most needed, said Edith Narayan, the district’s student services coordinator. . That flexibility was especially useful when students went back to school after distance learning, many with lingering anxiety due to the pandemic, she said.

“Not only can we provide more support to students, but we can proactively engage with it and provide enveloping services,” Narayan said. “I really believe our approach has helped more students.”

Like El Rancho, Ceres also won a Golden Bell award from the California School Boards Association in 2016 for its student support services.

Santa Ana Unified is another California district that recently hit the recommended ratio of 250 to 1. Before the pandemic, Orange County’s 46,000 student district had only 65 counselors. But last year there was a recruiting campaign and 140 new counselors were added and sent to every elementary, middle, and high school. That’s in addition to 24 social workers, 25 social work interns, 57 psychologists, 24 nurses, 31 licensed vocational nurses, 56 health technicians, and 54 family involvement specialists.

“Since the onset of the pandemic, our support staff have become connectors and comforters not only for students, but also for parents and school staff,” said district spokesman Fermin Leal. “When SAUSD switched to distance learning in March 2020, they were on the front line. … They continue to provide the critical care needed to support our students and families.”

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