WORTHINGTON - Students need, and require, more than just reading, writing and arithmetic to have a successful education. A vital part of the educational system - and often misunderstood or overlooked - are school counselors.

So what exactly does a counselor do?

School counselors from District 518 offered a slight chuckle when asked what a “typical” day is like in their profession.

“There’s no such thing,“ Worthington High School counselor Dan Schnelle said.

“Every day is different - you never know what to expect. That’s part of the territory. We’re there to respond to whatever the student needs at the time. We may have certain things we have to do, but if a kid comes in in crisis, everything stops to deal with that and you never know when that is going to happen.” 

Prairie Elementary school counselor Laurie Knudson has regularly scheduled classroom visits. Knudson says she is able to visit each of the 52 classes at Prairie once a month for an in-class lesson, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. 

“At the elementary level they are definitely working on more of those developmental skills and character building,” WHS counselor Lakeyta Porter explained. “Laurie does developmental guidance a lot more - small groups. She definitely spends a lot of her time doing small groups and getting into classrooms.” 

At Worthington Middle School, counselor Carrie Adams also offers classroom guidance, like Knudson, in addition to a careers unit with eighth-grade students. Adams also works with small groups and aids students with high school planning. 

For the high school counselors and Area Learning Center counselor Jami Wahl, the routine activities are very different than Knudson’s. 

“We definitely are working with kids making sure they are staying on track to graduate high school and then also developing a plan for their future,” Porter shared. “We deal with the personal and social issues that students may have that could be academic-related or could be outside of academics.”

“There are things that tend to interfere with being successful in the classroom and sometimes it is academic related,” Schnelle explained. “But, sometimes it is just other things going on in their lives that distract and get in the way.”

Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchy of needs that each person must achieve certain needs in order to grow. At the most basic level, humans need to have their biological needs met before they can begin to achieve. 

In a presentation to District 518’s Operations Committee earlier this month, Adams explained that students must have these very basic needs met before they can be expected to achieve educational goals. 

As of October, District 518 had 2,958 students enrolled districtwide; 2,121 of those students (71.7) percent receiving free or reduced lunch. It could be argued that if a child is not having basic survival needs met, it is unlikely he or she will be able to achieve the same high level of goals as a child who does not have those same worries. 

“We’ve been trained to look at the whole picture and not just see a student who is acting out in class,” Knudson said. 

In District 518, counselors work with students outside of the realm of academics. They connect students with community resources that can benefit both students and their families such as school supplies or warm clothing. 

“We also help coordinating in the community for mental health needs, community food shelves, local churches,” Knudson said. 

“We are definitely a resource to link students with the things they need,” Porter said.

School counselors serve as advocates for their students and often communicate with parents, teachers and administration about a student’s needs while always maintaining confidentiality. It is that veil of anonymity that can mask what role a counselor actually plays for students.

“I think there’s still a lot of people that don’t know what school counselors do and partially because what we do is confidential,” Adams said. “We don’t go out and share about all of these issues and things that we are dealing with with our students and help them overcome, so there is this kind of mystery about what do we really do.”

Mental health

What counselors are often most associated with is mental health. In her presentation, Adams said World Health Organization states that approximately 20 percent of youths under the age of 18 have mental health concerns. Further, approximately 50 percent of students with a mental illness 14 or older drop out of high school.

Stigmas attached to mental health and cultural beliefs surrounding the issue can create a unique set of challenges for the counselors.

“Sometimes when we say ‘mental health’ there is a stigma attached to it,” Knudson noted. “Parents think we think their kid is crazy when no, in fact we don’t. We understand. But, we also see they have some needs that need addressing.”

“...I still think there is a stigma about mental health care and people not wanting to acknowledge or realize how many students really are struggling with mental health issues and how that really does impact their education and every aspect of their life,” Adams added. “I think the more we talk about it, the more people get familiar and understand that these things really are happening, but there are solutions and support and help available whether it is in the school or in the community.”

Porter offered a slightly different perspective on what role schools can play in mental health.

“Really, a lot of our kids get the help they need because of the school,” Porter began. “We are that first referral source in identifying the mental health need in that student, so that’s huge. We play a huge role in that.”

No mandates

Currently, the state of Minnesota does not have mandates regarding the number of school counselors required in schools. In fact, the number of or even requirement of school counselors varies by state.

“It is not mandated in the state of Minnesota,” Adams shared. “There is a recommendation from the American School Counselors Association to have one counselor to 250 students, but that is the ideal number.”

Presently, the ALC is the only building that meets or exceeds the ASCA recommendation; Wahl serves approximately 100 students. With two counselors at WHS, the number of students are divided, leaving Schnelle and Porter with 415 students each. Adams works with 799 students at the middle school. At Prairie Elementary, Knudson has the lion’s share of students at a staggering 1,078 - four times the ASCA recommendation.

District 518 is not alone in having a high student-to-counselor ratio. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, public schools nationwide average 370 students to a full-time equivalent counselor in schools that had at least one.