District 518's enrollment keeps its counselors busy
WORTHINGTON -- The role of a school counselor is often misunderstood, according to Jan Larson, who has counseled students at Worthington Senior High "to help them be successful as students" for the past 19 years.
Now, in the midst of National School Counseling Week, Larson and her cohorts in District 518 are drawing attention to a job that has evolved as societal changes make it easier to talk about things like bullying, domestic abuse, suicide, depression and gay and lesbian issues.
"The problems have become more complex," said Larson. "They're more willing to bring them to the forefront because they're talked about in the media all of the time. As we become more open as a society by talking about things ... they're more willing to come to us and talk about it."
Gone are the days when school counselors simply helped students with college applications or passed along scholarship information. They still do those things, of course, but Larson said they do so much more.
"We end up doing a lot of personal counseling for problem solving," she said, adding that the role of a school counselor looks dramatically different between the district's schools. At the high school, for instance, Larson does a lot of one-on-one work with students. Meanwhile, Prairie Elementary counselor Laurie Knudson does more classroom work, often focusing on teaching young children proper hygiene, social skills and study skills.
"I'm working with teachers on a classroom guidance unit in all grade levels, but I don't get in every classroom every week," Knudson said. She spends quite a bit of time in the kindergarten and first-grade classrooms -- there are 11 classes of each -- where she does units on friendship, bullying, social skills and problem solving. She also does some small group work with students in those same areas.
At Worthington Middle School, counselor Carrie Adams said she sees a lot of the typical issues one might expect in students' transitions between being children and teens -- friendship troubles, frustration with parents and the more serious issues like depression and bullying. In addition to meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, she also does classroom education, presenting bullying education programs in all grade levels and talking about career planning with the school's eighth-graders.
"I love being around the students everyday -- talking with them and interacting with them and trying to help them through this challenging point in life," Adams said.
Yet, at the same time, she -- like other counselors in the district -- said the schools could be more adequately staffed to assist students in need.
District 518 is one of many Minnesota schools considered to be understaffed in counseling services. The American School Counselors Association recommends that for every 250 students, there be one counselor on staff. Knudson, however, is the only counselor at Prairie Elementary for approximately 950 students. The remaining 150 students are within the special education program at Prairie, which is served by a school social worker.
Knudson had spent five years as a counselor at Worthington Middle School before taking on the role at Prairie Elementary six years ago. She was the first counselor at Prairie Elementary, which had family advocates in place in prior years.
With so much of her time spent in the kindergarten and first-grade classrooms, Knudson said the school and students could benefit by having additional staff.
"There's just not enough hours in the day or days in the week for me to do the things that I feel are important for all of the students," Knudson said. "One (counselor) to 950 (students) is high."
On the other hand, she's grateful to have been given the opportunity to counsel at the elementary level.
"Not all elementary schools in the state have counselors," Knudson said.
At the middle school, Adams is the only school counselor, serving 780 fifth- through eighth-graders. There is also a social worker in the building, but due to funding, only works with students in the special education program.
In her third year as WMS counselor, Adams' workload today is the same as it was when there were two counselors in the middle school. She said it would be "wonderful" if the district could provide at least another counselor to help meet the needs of students, but it comes down to the budget.
"It's difficult to justify sometimes (hiring a counselor) versus another classroom teacher or support staff who is working with the students," Adams said.
Minnesota schools rank near the bottom when it comes to adequate staffing of school counselors.
"Of the 50 states, we are one of the four poorest (in) staffing for mental health workers in the schools," Larson said.
One of the reasons the state lags behind others in counselor staffing, she said, is that it isn't mandated. Just across the state line, in Iowa, it is.
"Iowa is way ahead of us," Larson said. According to 2010 statistics, Iowa has 396 to 400 students per school counselor, while Minnesota has 770 students per counselor.
"If there's an actual crisis -- God forbid we have one --you can't possibly meet the needs of all those students," Larson shared, adding that a crash more than a decade ago that resulted in the deaths of several District 518 students required assistance from counselors in neighboring school districts, as well as mental health professionals and ministers from surrounding communities.
"Other (districts) do that, too," she said. "Counselors serve all of the students; we're not just here for one group or one grade level."
In District 518, counselors are fortunate to have assistance from the local Southwestern Mental Health Center. At the middle school, an SMHC mental health therapist comes in once a week to meet with students whose parents have agreed they need more ongoing care.
"She has eight to 10 students in the middle school that she works with," Adams said.
Advocating for help
Later this month, on Feb. 14 and Feb. 27, school counselors from across Minnesota will meet with state legislators to talk about the need for funding more counseling positions in schools to meet the ongoing mental health needs of students.
While Adams won't be able to attend either event, she frequently calls and emails her legislators to promote the school counseling program.
"Really, right now our message is to increase funding for school counseling programs so that we can provide better care for the students we have in our building," she said.
"There's so much in the media now with mental health needs for our kids, and we've felt that way forever," added Larson. Recent national tragedies -- including the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. -- underscore the need for early intervention with the mentally ill.
"We work with students first, but in the course of the day we work with students, parents, teachers, administrators, custodians, lawyers, other health workers in the community, social services, law enforcement and all kinds of people that affect people's lives," Larson said. "Our work really covers a broad spectrum of things."
Other counselors working in District 518 include Dan Schnelle, who splits his time between the high school and the Alternative Learning Center (ALC); and Tracy Johnson, who works part-time at the ALC, part-time at the high school and is also a social worker.
District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard said that with the stresses on kids today, there is more of a need for counseling services, and the district is addressing it with its counselors, social workers and staff.
"It comes down to, if you look across the whole education board, there are areas where we're understaffed and there are areas where there are needs," Landgaard said. "With tight budgets in many areas, districts have chosen not to fund that area. The same could be said for school nurses. There's a great argument for, 'Do we need more school nurses?'
"It's a matter of trying to figure out where the budget dollars go to, and many districts struggle with that -- not only in Minnesota, but across the nation."
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.