California made a historic investment in school counselors. Is it enough?

Julie Reichle

Piedmont High School students and recent graduates showed up to march in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

For the first time in more than a decade, California invested significantly in school counselors last year as the pandemic spurred a mental health crisis among young people. But even with more funds and a soaring need, California’s school student-to-counselor ratio still ranks near the bottom nationally.

According to the national rankings released last month by the American School Counselor Association, California schools have an average of 527 students for each counselor, more than double the recommended ratio of 250-to-1. Only five states had fewer counselors per student.

Still, that’s a big improvement from the early 2000s, when California had nearly 1,000 students per counselor and ranked last among the 50 states. School districts have been gradually hiring more counselors since then, using funds from the Local Control Funding Formula and more recently, from the $20 billion windfall for schools in last year’s state budget.

But it’s still not enough, and too many students aren’t receiving the help they need, especially during the pandemic, said Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors.

California has shortchanged counseling and mental health services for so long that substantial shifts in district counseling staffs could take years.

Part of the problem, she said, is low expectations. Decades of underfunding have left students, families, administrators and school boards unaware of all the services that counselors can provide: college and career advising, mental health support for students and teachers, academic counseling, work on equity and school climate issues, among other tasks. Numerous studies have linked student mental wellness with higher test scores, attendance and graduation rates and fewer suspensions and expulsions.

“We do what we’re familiar with. California schools have no roots in adequately funding student support services. … So we do not know what we do not know,” Whitson said. “What’s possible under a fully staffed school counseling workforce is simply unimaginable.”

Another obstacle, Whitson said, is that almost no counselors serve on school boards or as administrators. Most high-level district leaders come from the ranks of teachers or have never been in a school with adequate counseling staff. So they might not prioritize counseling or even have a full grasp of counselors’ job duties.

Paul Meyers, superintendent of Standard Elementary School District near Bakersfield and a former counseling consultant to the California Department of Education, said politics often play a role in whether a district funds counselors. Conservative-leaning boards are less likely to invest in services they view as “fluff,” he said.

But when presented with data, board members can change their minds, he said. A decade ago, when he started in Standard, which is in one of the most conservative areas of California, the 3,000-student district had one counselor and two psychologists. He convinced the board to hire one more counselor, and after they saw the improvements in attendance, academic achievement and discipline, they agreed to hire more. Now the district has three counselors and six psychologists.

“When students and parents and teachers see the value of having counselors on campus, the board will listen,” Meyers said.

A similar transformation happened in El Rancho Unified, an 8,000-student district in east Los Angeles County. In 2009 the district received a grant to beef up mental health services, based on the long waiting lists at the community agencies where the district was referring students. Mental health services were much needed at the time, when community violence was surging and many students were suffering from trauma and stress.

With the grant money, the district hired more counselors, trained teachers, did outreach to families and established partnerships with a slew of organizations, including the University of Southern California, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and the California Department of Education.

The grant expired after a few years, but the results were so marked the board agreed to continue funding counselors and other mental health services. Now, the predominantly Latino district near Whittier has 13 mental health counselors, 10 school counselors and 22 graduate student interns, giving the district a student-to-counselor ratio of 177-to-1, among the lowest in California. It’s also worked to reduce the stigma sometimes associated with therapy, especially among parents.

The Rancho district recently won a Golden Bell award from the California School Boards Association for its efforts.

“It started with a grant, but now we can’t imagine it not being this way,” Superintendent Frances Esparza said. “We try to remove barriers for students. Any student can go walk in at any time and receive help. It’s embedded in the school culture.”

More than 1,400 El Rancho students a year receive some kind of mental health service, either by meeting directly with a counselor or through a class.

The focus on counseling and mental health has paid off. El Rancho has attendance, discipline and graduation rates above the state average. A student mental health survey conducted before the pandemic showed that fewer than 10% of students said they were depressed or anxious enough to require follow-up care.

Elk Grove Unified, one of the state’s largest districts, with 64,000 students, has also made mental health a priority. The Sacramento County district has 103 counselors, 66 psychologists, 13 social workers, 25 mental health therapists and 26 behavior specialists.

“We believe that healthy learning is tied to a healthy body and healthy mind,” said district spokesperson Xanthi Soriano.

“Given past social unrest paired with the current public health crisis, our students need a strong and dedicated team of professionals who can provide academic and mental health support in order to help students thrive academically and socially.”

California does not require districts to hire counselors, and there’s wide variation in how districts deliver mental health and guidance services. Ceres Unified, near Modesto, has only one licensed counselor but more than 70 staff members who work directly with students on college and career advising, mental health and other duties that usually fall within a counselor’s job descriptions.

Some of those people, such as psychologists, hold pupil services credentials and advanced degrees, while others, including “student support specialists,” hold a bachelor’s degree and no credential or license. Some staff combine their advising duties with administrative roles or focus on only one task, such as social skills.

Hiring noncredentialed staff can save money. A recent employment listing for a student support specialist in Ceres advertised the salary as between $20 and $25 per hour, or $41,000 to $52,000 annually. Credentialed counselors earn twice that, typically.

But combining job duties and hiring noncredentialed staff gives the district the flexibility to hire more staff, and deploy them where and when they’re most needed, said Edith Narayan, the district’s coordinator of student services. That flexibility was especially handy when students returned to school after remote learning, many with lingering anxiety due to the pandemic, she said.

“Not only can we offer students more support, but we can be proactive about it and offer wraparound services,” Narayan said. “I really believe our approach has helped more students.”

Like El Rancho, Ceres also won a Golden Bell award from the California School Boards Association, in 2016, for its student support services.

Santa Ana Unified is another district in California that recently reached the recommended 250-to-1 counseling ratio. Before the pandemic, the 46,000-student district in Orange County had only 65 counselors. But last year it went on a hiring binge, bringing in 140 new counselors who were sent to every elementary, middle and high school. That’s in addition to 24 social workers, 25 social work interns, 57 psychologists, 24 nurses, 31 licensed vocational nurses, 56 health technicians and 54 family engagement specialists.

“Since the arrival of the pandemic, our support personnel have become connectors and comforters-in-chief, not just to students but to parents and school staff,” said Sonia Llamas, the district’s assistant superintendent of K-12 school performance and culture. “When SAUSD pivoted to distance learning in March 2020, they were in the front lines. … They continue providing the critical care needed to support our students and families.”

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