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Adding School Counselors Might Make Schools Safer, But Only If They Can Actually Counsel Students

Western Middle School school counselor Judith Wilson spends most of her day working with students.
Western Middle School school counselor Judith Wilson spends most of her day working with students.

A 2019 law passed by the General Assembly requires Kentucky schools to nearly double the numbers of school counselors by July 2021. Research shows school counselors play an important role in making schools safer. But as in many states, Kentucky’s school counselors say administrative work is keeping them from doing what they’re trained to do — counsel students.

In between classes at Western Middle School for the Arts in west Louisville, school counselor Judith Wilson walked the halls, scanning students’ faces for signs someone might need to talk.

"Good afternoon!" she said to two girls taking their books out of their lockers. "You all right, Kennedy?"

The student smiled and nodded, and headed off to her next class.

Then, halfway down the seventh-grade hall, a teacher stepped out of his classroom and waved her down.

"Wilson!" the teacher shouted over the din of slamming lockers and laughing students.

A girl came out of his classroom with tears streaming down her face.

Wilson hurried over to the student, said a few words, and sent her downstairs to wait for her on the couch in the counseling office while she finished monitoring the halls.

"We have students go and sit and kind of take a few minutes to center themselves, and calm themselves, and then we can have a conversation," Wilson said.

Wilson carries a caseload of about 335 students, and she spends most of her time working with them. But many Kentucky school counselors spend much of their day doing tasks the American School Counselor's Association (ASCA) considers inappropriate: record-keeping, bus duty, handing out referrals and facilitating standardized tests. A 2019 state survey found Kentucky's school counselors spend more than a quarter of their day doing non-counseling duties.

Damien Sweeney is the director of school counseling programs for the Kentucky Department of Education. He said he constantly hears from school counselors who are frustrated with the amount of non-counseling tasks their principals give them.

"They went to school, and they took this position because of the role that they envisioned, and that seldom has to do with facilitating exams," Sweeney said.

Perhaps most importantly, research says role confusion among school counselors can lead to burnout, and may keep counselors from creating effective programs.

Shifting Priorities

Role confusion is a problem for school counselors across the country. It stems in part from big changes in the profession over time. Historically school counselors were called "guidance counselors," and their main role was to steer students towards careers or college based on students' perceived skill or aptitude. Additionally, principals often asked school counselors to pick up the administrative slack in between student meetings. 

But today's school counselors aren't sitting back and waiting for students to come to them.

"The primary difference between today's school counselors and the guidance counselor of 20 or 25 years ago is that today's school counselors work with all students in a school," ASCA assistant director Jill Cook said. "Not just those in trouble, not just those who may be preparing for college, but all students."

And they're not just focused on getting students into college or into a job. Sweeney said school counselors should be focused on helping students succeed academically, socially and emotionally.

"We're looking at the whole student," Sweeney said, including their mental health.

Sweeney said that means school counselors are going into classrooms and proactively teaching students about mental health issues like depression and anxiety. They're giving lessons on social skills, like setting boundaries with friends. Or they may start a school-wide anti-bullying program. Basically, they're trying to prevent problems before they arise. 

Along with dramatically increasing the number of school counselors, Kentucky's new school safety law will require school counselors to spend at least 60 percent of their day doing counseling-related services. The idea being — the more time counselors spend actually counseling — the safer schools will be.

"It’s shifting how we use our resources, and prioritizing the mental health of our students," Sweeney said.

While the 60 percent requirement would be a change for many Kentucky school counselors, it's still less than the 80 percent the ASCA recommends school counselors spend working directly or indirectly with students.

Sweeney said many principals are still working under the the old "guidance counselor"  model. He said counselors need to be educating their principals about the benefits of allowing them more time with students.

But some administrators are skeptical schools will be able to free up school counselors for more student interaction.

"All of that sounds great, and that’s what we want," Kentucky Association of School Superintendents (KASS) President James Neihof said. "But if they're going to do that, that leaves a vacuum that has to be filled because these other things are required."

Neihof said principals are often overwhelmed with administrative tasks required under state and federal education laws, especially during testing season. That's why they rely on counselors to help out. He said there's rarely a funded position for coordinating tests, or managing special education plans.

"The reality is, somebody has to do those tasks," he said.

Putting Out Small Fires, Instead Of Big Ones

Back at Western Middle, class transition was over and school counselor Judith Wilson was back in the counseling wing. The seventh grade student from upstairs was waiting for her on a big comfy couch. She seemed calmer. Wilson sent her into her office, then turned to two other students to quickly wrap up a mediation she started before transition. They got in trouble for pulling up an inappropriate web page. 

"So can you all go to Ms. Ross and be able to tell her 'Hey, this is what happened?'" she asked them. They said yes, and Wilson sent them to class, too. Meanwhile, her walkie-talkie was already squawking — she was needed in room 104.

"It's just a regular day," she said.

Western Middle School recently hired another person to take on some of the clerical work Wilson used to do. She's still busy, but it makes a huge difference, she said.

"We are able to go into the classrooms, and go into hallways, and we are constantly interacting with students and building rapport," she said. "We’re putting out teeny tiny little fires that we may see."

Putting out teeny tiny little fires, before they turn into big ones. 

clarification: This post has been changed to clarify the name of the school. It's formally known as Western Middle School for the Arts.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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