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Cali Owings, Published February 09 2014

Counselor-to-student ratios fall short in Minn.

MOORHEAD - On a busy day at Moorhead High School, the counseling office will see close to 100 students.

At Robert Asp Elementary here, the school’s single counselor serves about 870 students.

Like many other school counselors throughout the state, those in Moorhead work with far more students than their counterparts in North Dakota or Wisconsin. Minnesota has one school counselor for every 792 students, ranking it 48th in the nation, according to Department of Education data.

“There’s some kids out there that we don’t know very well,” said Sarah Miller, a Moorhead High School counselor.

The counseling office counts on referrals from teachers, parents and friends to get students in the door. Counselors use classroom visits to plan registration and build trust with students so they’re more willing to stop in during times of crisis.

“I can’t count the number of times that kids have come in here for a question about college or a schedule and it ends up being something serious, which tells us that they are comfortable coming in here,” Miller said.

At the elementary level, Maret Kashmark uses a similar approach with classroom visits at Robert Asp. With that age group, Kashmark said most of her work is preventive, such as teaching skills to regulate emotions, studying, empathy and problem-solving.

She invites students to group lunches or group sessions for unique needs – like dealing with a death in the family or divorce.

“They know who I am,” Kashmark said, even in a sea of 870 students.

While Minnesota stands out in the nation for its lack of school counselors, it also stands apart from its neighbors in North Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin because those states mandate counseling for all grade levels. Minnesota does not.

Iowa even requires that schools work toward a ratio of one counselor for every 350 students.

Last spring, some state legislators pushed a bill that would set minimum counselor-to-student ratios in public schools at one counselor for every 250 students in grades 9-12, one for every 350 in grades seven and eight, and one for every 450 at the elementary level.

“I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t realize in this day and age the importance of having good counselors on staff,” said Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth.

But he said a state mandate isn’t the answer. Instead, districts should have the flexibility to make the decisions that work best for them.

Under the state’s plan to create the “World’s Best Workforce” by investing in education, districts are required to submit detailed plans about how they will address the achievement gap. Marquart said school counselors would be a part of the equation in many cases.

“Counselors are going to be a very important part of reaching those goals,” he said.

The Legislature also increased available funding for school counselors by raising the safe schools levy by $6 per pupil.

Counselor advocates

Every year, the Minnesota School Counselors Association works with local and state leaders to address the growing need for more counselors in the state’s schools.

Dave Warner, president of the association, said changing the state’s counselor-to-student ratios is a “continual battle.”

In March, the state counselors group will spend a “day on the hill” meeting with state lawmakers to educate them on the role of school counselors and to advocate for legislation.

Warner said the group does not know yet what kind of legislative agenda they will push at the meeting.

He said counselors can also share their success stories at the local level with their principals, districts and school board members.

“Share the data of how they’re making a difference,” Warner said. “They could make an even greater difference if there were more of them.”

That worked in the Osseo School District where Warner is an elementary counselor. He said the district had grant funding for additional counselors. When the funding ran out in three years, counselors made a push to keep all of the counselors using data from the district.

“It was a huge triumph,” he said. “Usually, when a grant runs out, you say goodbye to the people who were hired with that money.”

In Moorhead, counselor Scott Matheson said the district was forward-thinking to put him in a role where he works with at-risk students who might be leaving the school or dropping out.

While Matheson has a lighter caseload than the other high school counselors, he’s helping students who are struggling see the value of their high school diploma.

He said the district was in tune to the needs of its students.

“The district is concerned about the whole student. That socio-emotional piece is at the forefront,” he said.

Miller said “it takes a village,” to help students be successful throughout high school.

“We never know what’s going on inside these kids,” she said. “Every interaction we have could make a difference.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Cali Owings at (701) 241-5599