Teachers and students aren’t the only groups that make a school run properly.
For an education system to actually work, there needs to be a support staff. This includes counselors, truancy officers and nurses.
Take the situation on January 10 at Taft Union High School in Taft, Calif., when a 16-year-old student walked into his science class and opened fire on his classmates. The class science teacher, Ryan Heber, started talking to the gunman who told him he was bullied by the student he shot. Heber continued to talk to the gun-wielding student while a support staff member, campus supervisor Kim Lee Fields, arrived. The pair talked the student into relinquishing his gun.
But as budget cuts continue in America’s schools, counselors and support staff are often the first to face a pink slip.
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The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) states on its website: “School counselors are an important part of the educational leadership team and provide valuable assistance to students regardless of whether they work in an elementary school or middle school, high school or beyond.”
Indeed, school counselors do more than just help students choose classes and ponder a career. Many offer invaluable free mental health counseling about how to handle some of life’s toughest problems, including bullying, which seemed to be at the heart of the Taft, Calif., school shooting.
“The Guidance counselor’s role has now become essential for teachers and students,” says Jennifer Cerbasi, an educational consultant. “When I taught, the counselor was someone whom I could bounce ideas off of. If something came up in middle of class and I couldn’t support that student or work them through it, then I could walk them down to the counselor and have them talk to her.”
Cerbasi says that many counselors are critical in implementing all of the anti-bullying laws and programs that are now required in schools. She said many of them create innovative ways to deal with tough issues.
For example, Cheryl Hurst, a senior social worker at Montefiore School Health Program and a counselor at PS/MS 95 in the Bronx, created S.T.A.R., a program to teach 12-to-14 year olds how to develop healthy friendships and communicate in nonviolent and supportive ways.
“We look at how to be a good friend, what a good friend looks like, and how to not be bullied or be a bystander,” she says. “We go into the classrooms and focus on friendships and relationships and what to do if you are bullying and how to get help.”
One trend that is occurring across the country is the elimination of elementary school counselors. That doesn’t sit well with Steve Schneider, a counselor at Sheboygan South High School in Sheboygan, Wis.
“In some places, you have entire districts without a counselor,” Schneider says. “You have students who are in kindergarten through sixth grade having no formal exposure in thinking about careers or attaching what they are learning to the future.”
Counselors often help students link learning to possible careers. That can only helps students achieve more in the classroom.
In 2003, Seattle researchers Christopher A. Sink and Heather R. Stroh reported that elementary students who attend schools with comprehensive school counseling programs have higher academic achievement than those in schools without them.
Yet, the U.S. Department of Education and its National Center for Education Statistics show that counseling isn’t viewed that way by those who slash budgets. Two thousand counseling positions were lost between the 2008-09 and 2010-11 school years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. It notes that the ratio of students to counselors nationwide went to 470-to-1 from 457-to-1 during that same time period. ASCA recommends a 250-to-1 ratio of students to counselors.
In many instances, counselors end up taking on the tasks of a secretary or other staff that have been cut instead of counseling one-on-one or offering classroom presentations like Hurst offers in the Bronx.
“When you look at a budget, the counselor often goes part-time because there are days when no one needs her,” Cerbasi says. “And then there are days when everyone needs her. If your kid isn’t involved with a counselor, you may not see how important that role is.”
Cerbasi believes that now is not the time to cut counselors from school budgets. She says simply, “Kids have a lot on their plates these days.”
Schneider agrees. He says eliminating counselors goes against every topic discussed in education today.
“Its counterintuitive to the hot-button issues that schools are facing, like safety, college and career readiness, anti-bullying and academic performance,” he says. “All of that falls squarely in the realm of the school counselor. I don’t know why it is so easy for some districts to just say we don’t have the money for a school counselor.”
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com