For the past 18 years, Regina Brown has spent her work days counseling elementary schoolers. That means working with them individually or in groups, tracking down children who miss class or calling home when students confide concerns about their well-being.
In theory, this is roughly how all days should unfold for elementary-school counselors.
And then there’s reality: the hours Brown has spent overseeing lunch, monitoring recess, proctoring tests — even shepherding children to and from school as a stand-in crossing guard. “It’s the least effective use with the most highly trained person in the building,” said Brown, who works at Washington Elementary in the Centralia School District south of Olympia. “It’s really a travesty.”
Lawmakers are now considering a bill that would tighten the definition of a school counselor’s duties and aim to align Washington law with national school-counselor guidelines. The measure is designed to maximize the amount of time these largely master degree-level staff spend counseling kids, and keep schools from treating counselors as generalists who fill any vacant role. Lawmakers heard testimony on the bill in Wednesday’s Senate Committee on Early Learning & K-12 Education public hearing. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction supports the bill as does the Washington Education Association. No one testified in opposition to the legislation, but no votes were scheduled as of late Wednesday.
The American School Counselor Association, a national organization that sets standards for the profession, recommends one counselor to every 250 students, no matter their age. Washington’s funding aligns with the association’s recommendation only for high-school students: The state currently provides schools with enough money to hire one school counselor for every 811 elementary, 355 middle- and 236 high-school students. But there’s nothing in state law that guarantees school districts use that money to hire counselors. For instance, state data shows that some districts hire fewer counselors than they’re funded for, though many hire more.
The proposed legislation doesn’t address these ratios, but would help ensure counselors use their time effectively. In schools across Washington, counselors are positioned at the front lines of students’ academic and personal lives. For instance, they help the state’s youngest learners get to class on time — and advise older students on their post-high-school plans. Research suggests that school counselors help close academic-achievement gaps and increase the likelihood that students enroll in college.
School counselors are also often the only people in their building trained to help students work through mental-health concerns. Research suggests that students’ academic performance is tied to their well-being.
But many counselors say they don’t have the time or training to do this work.
School counselors have long needed more time to address students’ mental-health concerns, said Nita Hill, advocacy chair for the Washington School Counselor Association (WSCA), a school-counselor advocacy organization. It’s become more critical, she said, as state data has revealed that children are facing mental-health concerns at increasing rates. According to Washington’s most recent Healthy Youth Survey, rates of anxiousness and hopelessness have increased over the past decade. About half of the state’s students say they have an adult to turn to when they feel sad or suicidal.
Brown, a WSCA board member, informally polled more than 300 Washington elementary-school counselors last spring and roughly 84% of respondents said they can’t meet their students’ mental-health needs. At the same time, about a third said they’ve witnessed a “huge increase” in the severity of their students’ concerns in the past few years.
“It’s a tsunami of need,” Brown said.
It’s hard to say, definitively, how many hours a typical school counselor spends on assignments outside their job description; WSCA doesn’t track this. But anecdotally, school counselors across Washington who do track their time say they are frequently called on to oversee lunch or recess, Hill said.
The bill would also restrict school districts from using future state money dedicated to school counselors for anything but that purpose, said bill sponsor Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah.
“Some districts are still able to prioritize this, and some aren’t,” said Libuse Binder, executive director of the nonprofit Stand For Children Washington, which supports the bill. “What we’re mostly concerned about is the services are not consistent.”
The bill doesn’t inject additional money for counselors, or lower the ratio of students to counselors; this is an off year in Washington’s two-year budget cycle, when less money is on the table for new policy proposals. But the bill lays the groundwork to add more funding next legislative session, Mullet said.
He said, “This is an important element to be able to have comfort that if you make that investment it’s actually going to go toward what you want it to.”
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