On the front lines: The changing role of school counselors

MIDDLETON, Wis. (WMTV) -- The struggles on the playground just aren't what they used to be. What many think of including smoking, drinking, and sex are actually down as reported in the Dane County Youth Assessment Report. An example, experimenting with alcohol is down 14 percentage points over the last 10 years among 7th and 8th graders.

Changes in students have prompted a change in the roles of school counselors. A growing number of school districts in Wisconsin are now putting a new emphasis on their value to ensure the learning and development of children.

The problems that are on the rise with kids are a little harder to see. Mental health related issues are consuming school counselors. Right now, the concern is if there are enough school counselors to go around?

Kerry Burke is in her 11th year as a school counselor at Kromrey Middle School in Middleton and has worked as a mental health professional for 14 years. Burke said many kids wouldn't ge the help they need if it wasn't for counseling services offered in schools.

"When students have those needs meet they are much better able to thrive academically," said Burke.

With more than 1,100 students attending Kromrey she is part of a three person team that makes up the counseling department. Two of them are full time and one is part-time. This means there's one counselor for about every 420 students.

"We have a large student body and with 2.6 counselors in our building, a school psychologist, and a social worker I think sometimes it can be challenging to feel like we are meeting all of those needs," said Burke. She continued though by saying she feels her team has a strong approach and works well with each other to make sure kids get the help.

Kromrey's ratio is pretty close to the national average of 464 students per counselor. However, that's nearly double the recommended guidelines from the American School Counselor Association which recommends one counselor for every 250 students. This is an issue facing a number of schools in our area.

Here's the breakdown:

The Madison Metropolitan School District has an enrollment of 27,000 students. The executive director of curriculum and instruction, Cynthia Green, said there are 13 middle school counselors serving 5,500 students. At the high schools, the average ratio is 1:350. The district also has a counselor at four comprehensive high schools which specialize in and supports bilingual students and families. Currently, they do not have school counselors at elementary schools. (This is a something NBC15 is following-up on)

The Sun Prairie School District, has 20 school counselors on staff. Patricia Lux-Weber, the communications and engagement officer for the district, said each elementary school has a full-time counselor and the high school has a 1:400 ratio.

Just down the road Sara Ensign, a school counselor in the DeForest School District, reported one counselor at each elementary school, three at the middle school, and three at the high school. The ratio of school counselor to students in the high school is 1:350.

The Janesville School District has 10,143 students enrolled. Patrick Gasper, the public information officer for the district reported 28 counselors making the ratio roughly 1:362. Gasper said something that is exclusive to the Janesville School District is that middle/high school counselors are assigned to a single school and all all elementary schools have a full-time counselor with some additional staffing depending on socio-economic status of the school population.

There are 16 counselors in the Verona Area School District. Amy Tranel, the student supervisor for the district, said there are six at the elementary, four at the middle school, and six at the high school. With more than 5,600 students enrolled, the ratios is 1:370 elementary students, 1:288 middle school students, and 1:275 high schools students.

In the Cambridge School District, Kelly Cunningham is one of the three full-time counselors spread across four schools. She reported the district's enrollment is 927 students and counselor to student ratios are: Cambridge Elementary School (4K-5th grade) - 1:448, Nikolay Middle School (Grades 6-8) - 1:185, Koshkonong Trails (Grades 7-10) - 1:20, and Cambridge High School (Grades 9-12) - 1:274.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, state statute reads all students in Wisconsin must have access to a school counselor. Gregg Curtis, a school counseling consultant with DPI says how districts choose to staff their school is completely up to the district.

"There are some districts in the state that have about 250 to 300 kids per counselor and there are some districts that have 700 plus," said Curtis.

From district to district, job roles vary immensely. In the past, Curtis said counselors' roles had been deemed more "ancillary." Many were asked to do things like lunchroom duty, substitute teach, general student record-keeping, and standardized test coordination. All things, Curtis said, kept these master degree and special certificate holders from doing the important work with students.

In the early 2000s, the term guidance counselor was starting to be phased out and coined school counselor, according to Curtis. With that name change, it allowed counselors to focus on the rise of mental health issues in schools, school safety, and bullying. During this time, Curtis believes the role of school counselors are now more valued and less likely to be on the chopping block even with all of the cut backs to education funding.

Burke said school counselors really work across three domains: academic development, social/emotional development, and career-building. "We do a lot in terms of proactive services," said Burke.

By breaking away from just looking at standardized test results to measure the "real life" readiness of students, Curtis said, students are becoming more well-rounded by including social and emotional development by looking at resilience, self-advocacy, and hope. Even though they aren't measured, he said they are incredibly important for students to be successful.

"We know there are tons of kids that come in and have real mental health needs that based on barriers, their family isn't able to access services," said Burke. "So we do end up feeling like the front line for those kids."

Each day can be different for school counselors. They can range from lunchroom dispute to some heavy topics like anxiety, depression, and suicide. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five youth experience mental illness at some point and less than half of those kids receive treatment. Unfortunately, spotting the warning signs are not always easy.

A lot of the work Burke and other school counselors do is based on data. It's collected through one-on-one time, small groups, and online surveys.

Abbie Hannam works with 5th and 6th graders at Kromrey Middle School. She explained being prepared for the "real world" goes far beyond what students are learning in their text books.

"We can help students learn to cope with different situations and they can practice those coping skills before they get to a point where they don't know what to do," said Hannam.

While it can be a stressful position as many counselors, especially in Wisconsin, are stretched thin, Curtis said in the budget proposed by DPI includes money to allow districts to hire more people to serve. That includes counselors, social workers, school physcologists, and school nurses.

"The outlook for counselors is really bright for jobs to replace folks that are going to be getting out of education," said Curtis. "In addition, there are lots and lots of districts that are looking for ways to hire more counselors because they have recognized that counselors play an important role in student success."