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Minnesota Only Has 75 Elementary Counselors?

November 25, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

In all of Minnesota, there are only about 75 elementary school counselors.

Let's repeat that: 75 elementary school counselors in the entire state. This number was confirmed by officials at the Minnesota School Counselors Association and the Minnesota Department of Education.

The National School Counselors Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250 to 1. The national average is about 450 to 1. Minnesota's overall average is about 800 to 1. The average of Minnesota elementary school counselors to students enrolled in kindergarten through 6th grade is 5,647 to 1.

What do Minnesota students lose with a ratio that is so out of whack? Experts say that when students run into trouble that affects their education, no one is there to help them. 

"It means there are a lot of unmet needs in elementary schools," said Lisa Karch, a counselor at S.G. Reinertson Elementary in Moorhead.

 "There is a myth that young kids don't have problems, but they do," said Abby Brakke, counselor at L.H. Tanglen Elementary in Hopkins. She has dealt with children suffering from problems such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, suicidal tendencies and self-injury.  "If you don't have a counselor in the building you don't have someone who is helping teachers and parents deal with these problems. The problems might not be attended at all.

"So much of what we do is preventative. If counselors don't get into the buildings until junior high, then problems develop," she said.

How did this problem develop? Years ago, counseling was limited to high schools and only in the past 30 years has the need for counseling been identified and staffed in junior highs and elementary schools, said Murray Smart, counselor at Breckenridge High School and president of the Minnesota School Counselor Association. But the state has not adequately funded education - a drop of 13 percent since 2003 - and jobs have had to be lost. Smart said that elementary counselors were some of the first positions to be cut. "In high school, with the college prep and the essays and the ACTs, counselors are more visible," he said.

The help elementary school student receive isn't limited to the students with the most dramatic needs. Karch said she has seen a drastic increase in the number of students entering kindergarten and first grade without the social skills and manners to handle group settings.

"The majority of students don't know respect, please and thank you, how to play games like Candyland without getting into a fight," Karch said. "Learning these things is not automatic and if they don't learn them at home, then it comes down to the teacher and the school counselor to teach these things to students. Then you see students with more severe cases like sadness that leads to depression that leads to self-injury and talk of suicide and that no one cares about them. We teach them that it's OK to be sad and how to deal with those feelings."

Karch's student-to-counselor ratio at Reinertson Elementary is 900 to 1.

In addition, the number of students with mental health issues has jumped in the last five years. In a recent survey of school counselors, "Minnesota's School Counseling Crunch," more than 76 percent say student mental health care needs have increased in the past 24 months.

Also, counselors are required to administer standardized tests mandated by the state and federal government. In "Minnesota's School Counseling Crunch," nearly 50 percent of counselors say they spend at least 10 days each year directly involved with federal and state-mandated testing, and more than 10 percent say they spend at least 30 days or more each year administering tests.

So with increasing demands on their time and fewer counselors to fill those needs, the needs of children fall through the cracks.

"Families face all kinds of circumstances. Some are intact and stable, some have a single parent or a divorce or a separation," Smart said. "Just because they're littler and younger doesn't mean they don't have to deal with these problems. Older kids have bigger, adult-type problems like pregnancy, but little kids have problems and they need adults to help sift through them and deal with these problems."

To succeed in the 21st century, Minnesota absolutely must have a high-functioning workforce and intelligent adults capable of critical thinking. To achieve this, we need high-quality graduates, and this starts in kindergarten and first grade. Counselors are an important piece of that puzzle. Having only 75 elementary school counselors in the state is an embarrassment that serves no one well. This is educational underinvestment at its most abominable.

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