LIMA — It wasn’t that long ago when the job of a guidance counselor consisted mainly of preparing students for what they would be doing after high school.
In many school districts, the term “guidance counselor” is outdated, with schools now preferring the term “school counselor.”
“I think the term ‘guidance counselor’ was utilized to help students find their track, whether it was a career, whether it was working after high school, military, just guiding them throughout,” said Angela Meyer, school counselor at Freedom Elementary in Lima. “Both focus on the same thing, which, in the end, is the student. We provide academic assistance, career, social, emotional development, so the goal is to see a student succeed.”
The job of school counselor can differ from school district to school district and from elementary up to high school. The job has evolved throughout the years.
Adding social workers
The School Social Work Association of America partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union on a newly released report examining school discipline and personnel data collected by the U.S. Department of Education from schools across the country.
Among the study’s conclusion was “the need to prioritize local, state and federal funding on hiring more school mental health professionals, including school social workers.”
The report notes “10 million students attend schools that do not have the benefit of a School Social Worker, and 14 million attend a school where there are no school mental health professionals.” The report states “90 percent of schools fail to meet SSWAA’s recommended staffing ratios.”
The recommended student-to-counselor ratio is 250 students per counselor. In Ohio, that number is 507 to one. Only two states in the country, Montana at 207 to one and New Hampshire at 237 to one, meet that criteria.
Many school districts use social workers alongside school counselors or have contracted with mental health organizations to provide counseling services.
Asking for help
Wapakoneta school superintendent Aaron Rex recognizes the need to screen students for mental and emotional problems.
“Fifteen, 20 years ago, we didn’t have the social media aspect, and we weren’t trying to identify the next student who could be that person to threaten the school, but I actually think that’s the responsibility of everybody now,” Rex said.
Wapakoneta voters will be asked to approve a 1 mill additional levy which would raise $400,000 to deal with student’s mental health needs and beef up school security.
“We, as a school district, are looking to pass a levy to deal with more mental health issues,” Rex said. “We’re going to add another mental health counselor. We’re also going to add a class at the middle school that teaches kids about life skills and mental health and things like that that we think are important. We only have one school resource officer, so we’re going to add three more, one in each building.”
Rex says they are being vigilant in identifying students with mental health issues before something happens.
“Our teachers, our guidance counselors, our parents, everybody needs to be vigilant in looking at what ways can we help kids with their mental health issues?” Rex said. “What ways can we help kids with a variety of things they struggle with? Because you look at the home lives, where some of the kids have broken families, parents who are maybe doing drugs or in jail, that’s continued to get worse in our district. Now we probably have 40-some percent of our kids on free and reduced lunches, and that’s probably doubled in the last 10 or 15 years. You just have kids at home seeing and struggling with more and more things.”
Dealing with the mental health of students is becoming an ever-increasing part of the job of a school counselor. It’s about 50-50 according to Rex.
“Their job is to counsel kids and deal with some of that mental health stuff, but that’s become such a big part that they don’t have all of the time that they need to get kids on the right career path or helping them find what college that they want to go to or making sure that they can build the schedule that they want to be successful,” Rex said.
Switch to social workers
Some schools, such as Allen East schools, have gone strictly to employing social workers, giving school districts another tool in helping students deal with social/emotional issues. Heather Koontz and Amy Bradley are both social workers at Allen East.
Bradley was the first social worker hired at Allen East four years ago. She takes care of students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
“I did have to go back and do three classes for the school social work license,” Bradley said.
The difference between a school counselor and a social worker isn’t that much.
“From the school counselors I’ve known in elementary (schools), we kind of do the same thing,” Bradley said.
Like the other school counselor, dealing with the social and emotional problems of students takes a growing part of her time.
“Anxiety, depression, we deal with a lot of things that are going on at home, and they don’t have a lot of support, or parents can’t get them to counseling,” Bradley said. “It’s kind of nice because then they have that support system here at the school. Parents refer them. Teachers refer them if they’re struggling in the classroom. So we try to help them with coping skills and learning how to deal with their feelings.”
Koontz has the dual title of guidance counselor and social worker at the high school. She’s been at Allen East High School for the past year and a half.
“I am full of transitions all day long. In one minute, I can have a student asking me to look at their graduation credits, and then the next I could have a student coming in who is suffering from depression,” Koontz said. “I have to deal with it very quickly, assess what that student needs and then meet the need. I really don’t have a way of triaging who’s coming in and what’s going to happen for the day. It’s really based off of that student’s need, and every single day looks different.”
Social development issues
Mark Koch has been in education for 28 years and has been a middle school counselor for Wapakoneta schools for the past 18 years.
“We’ve turned into more mental health counselors,” Koch said. “We always had some one-on-one consultations that we did with kids in small group-type settings, classroom presentations in the elementary and in middle school. Those are things we do on a regular basis, however I personally have seen a shift in doing more of the mental health side of things and working with homes on a hand-to-hand basis with parents, almost to the point, where I want to say, counseling (the parents) to some extent.”
Renee Miller, with Glandorf Elementary School, has been a counselor for the past 13 years and has also seen the job change.
“When I first started, I would go in and work with kids on just academic skills overall, and we would do test prep and different things like that,” she said. “Now it seems like it’s changed a lot more to individualized counseling, where the kids come in, and you’re developing those individual relationships with kids and then just relationships throughout the whole school in promoting whatever it is we’re trying to promote for that specific month. That’s been the big shift, so it’s not so much like career and job readiness. It’s a lot more social and emotional, a lot more.”
Preparing for the challenge
Elizabeth Smith has been a school counselor for Bluffton schools for the past nine years.
“In those nine years, I’ve served pre-k through 12, so I’ve served at each different level,” she said. “I don’t know that the position has changed, I just think the people in the positions have been trained to deal more with mental health and from that standpoint, which is what my training was in.”
Some of the change is a transition of the people coming from college into the school systems.
“I think the idea of what a school counselor should be is being changed at the collegiate level,” Smith said. “The people coming out (of college) have those understandings that they will be there to serve not just the needs of helping students find career placements, either in jobs or at college, but also dealing with mental health and anything else — social, emotional needs that students need.”
Relying on teachers to identify
Kellie Sterling, a school counselor at Lima Senior High School, is in her third year in that position.
“We’re still doing a lot with the academic side of things, but I would say that there is more for the emotional and that sort of thing,” Sterling.
Finding that student suffering from mental health problems takes more than just school counselors.
“We rely a lot on the teachers, the administration because the teachers are with the students every day,” Sterling said. “We may not see a particular student on a particular day, but once we work with everyone and pinpoint (the problem), then we’re doing a lot more monitoring, checking in and that sort of thing.”
The size of Lima Senior, which had 1,043 students during the October 2018 headcount, causes other stresses.
“(Lima Senior) is a bigger school, so you depend a lot on other supports like the teachers, the administration, parents, other students, that sort of thing,” Sterling said. “We’re wanting to ensure what we’re doing is making sure these kids are becoming productive adults once we’re done with them, whatever that all entails.”
Reach Sam Shriver at 567-242-0409.