School counselors struggle to meet the varied needs of all students

October 13, 2018

A day in the life of a Jeannette school guidance counselor could include tracking college applications and financial aid deadlines, or coordinating field trips to give students on-the-job experience. It could also involve listening to a student who had a bad night at home, or getting help for a student who has suggested self-harm.

“Your first line of defense here is a school counselor,” said Shelley Muto, director of pupil services at Jeannette City School District, which recently hired an additional guidance counselor to spread out these responsibilities and to make sure students always have access to an adult who is trained to support their mental health needs.

“We’re ensuring that the buildings are covered in case there would be an emergency,” Muto said.

Debates about how to best support students’ mental health are playing out at the state and local levels as schools wrestle with concerns over student safety, wellness and the pressures of preparing them for college or the workforce. Regional listening sessions conducted by the Pennsylvania School Safety Task Force, an effort led by the state auditor general and governor’s offices this summer, revealed that school communities across the state feel that there should be more mental health professionals--counselors, nurses, psychologists or social workers--in schools. Locally, many districts are falling short of the number of such professionals experts recommend should be available to each student on a day-to-day basis.

Counselor-to-student ratios

Low student to counselor ratios are important because they give counselors more face time with individual students, according to best practices outlined by the American School Counselor Association. Other professional organizations for school-based professionals who support students’ mental health, like the National Association of School Psychologists, offer similar guidance. The organization recommends a ratio of one psychologist to up to 700 students.

Each of the 17 school districts that serve most of Westmoreland County exceed that ratio by nearly double the number of students per school psychologist, according to an analysis of 2018-19 school year employment data provided by the districts and student enrollment data from the state Department of Education. Most districts employ one or two school psychologists to serve the entire district.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor to 250 students. It’s higher in most states, including Pennsylvania, where the ratio was 1 to 398 , according to the most recent data available from the American School Counselor Association.

AG: State has to do its part

None of the districts in Westmoreland County meet the recommended counselor to student ratio at the district level. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said he’s not surprised by these findings. Based on anecdotal evidence gathered during the Pennsylvania School Safety Task Force listening tours this summer, he suspects districts across the state are facing the same challenges.

“I think the state’s going to have to do its part here,” DePasquale said of helping districts find the funding to hire full-time mental health professionals to staff schools. Finding qualified individuals to fill those roles could be another issue, he said.

DePasquale encouraged districts to reach out to county resources to fill gaps in service. It’s not an ideal solution, “but at least there’s somebody there,” he said.

It takes a lot of people

Though Jeannette City added a third school counselor to focus on college and career preparation this school year, the district’s counselor to student ratio still hovers at 1 to 341. Those counselors are working to balance the needs of all 1,025 students--from high schoolers gearing up for graduation to younger students focused on building social skills and dealing with the anxiety of being separated from mom and dad--and it’s impossible to say it’s more important to allocate those resources at one level or the other, Muto said.

“Then what kind of preteen or young adult are we helping to mold?” Muto said.

The New Kensington-Arnold School District, which had the highest district wide counselor to student ratio, employs two full-time guidance counselors who serve about 764 students at Valley Junior-Senior High School.

The district hasn’t had a counselor dedicated to the elementary level, about 1,131 students in grades kindergarten through six spread across three school buildings, for several years, said Jon Banko, assistant superintendent. He added that the district does receive help from the county and other outside organizations to support students’ emotional and mental health. The district is also looking for federal funding that might support such positions in the future.

“Unless a big wad of money falls out of the sky, we just aren’t in a position to hire people now,” he said.

As a result, the district relies on staff already in school buildings--teachers, principals or school nurses, for example--to have a rapport with students and to help the students connect with the resources they need.

“You have kids who are good at looking for help, but you have other kids who are just not comfortable with that,” Banko said. “And it really takes a lot of people really paying close attention.”

The Mt. Pleasant Area School District comes closest to meeting the recommended ratio, where the counselor to student ratio at the district level is 1 to 292--seven counselors serve 2,047 students.

“We have a lot of land here,” said Anthony Demaro, assistant superintendent, adding that the district’s campus includes five school buildings across a mostly rural, 106-square-mile footprint. Since it’s not easy to travel among school buildings quickly, it’s important for each building to have dedicated staff. At the high school, the counselor to student ratio is 1 to 215, better than the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation.

Mt. Pleasant Area also had a relatively low school nurse to student ratio, at 1 to 409. That’s compared to the National Association of School Nurses recommendation of 1 to 750. Of the 17 school districts that serve most of Westmoreland County, 15 had ratios that were lower.

Though school nurses are on hand to treat scraped knees and paper cuts, many also assist with student attendance, as well as with helping students and families connect with medical and dental resources, according to the National Association of School Nurses. Some also conduct vision tests and track students’ immunizations.

“I think it’s a help not only for the students, but it’s also a resource for the parents that we want to provide to them,” said Gary Peiffer, superintendent at Greensburg Salem School District, where the districtwide nurse-to-student ratio is 1 to 364, the lowest in the county.

But the district has a relatively high counselor-to-student ratio, 1 to 391 at the district level and 1 to 394 at the high school. That’s something Peiffer said the district is working to remedy. The district added two new counselors over the past two years.

“I think the need is greater now than it was before,” Peiffer said. “We need relationships to be successful with kids.”

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