Tough math: 759 kids, only 1 counselor

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 31, 2010 - 9:03 AM

School guidance counselors juggle many critical roles on front lines of high schools.

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Anoka High counselor Kim Nelson is on the front lines of an important battle that has her and colleagues dealing with student course schedules and college applications and more regular issues as well as a rash of other issues like teen suicide and despression. In this photo, Nelson bumps fists with a student who accurately guessed that it takes a $20 an hour job for a young person to be able to support himself living on his own.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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One by one, the students stream into Anoka High School guidance counselor Kim Nelson's shoebox-sized office, grab a chair and unload.

"I mean, 10 problems a night? Every night? That's like an hour,'' says one stressed-out boy, venting to Nelson after snapping at his honors trigonometry teacher. "I have a life, you know."

The next two girls wear blank, dazed faces. Both were close friends of boys who've died during this young school year -- one took his own life; the other was struck by a car while on his bike.

"I helped clean the stuff out of his room over the weekend, and that was really hard," says one girl, looking at her knees.

Nelson checks on the girl's attempts to secure grief counseling, commends her for catching up on assignments, then gives her a long hug.

"A lot of these kids are not just dealing with one of their friends passing away," Nelson said. "They're kids trying to handle two or three."

Anoka High has been hard hit by death in the past year, losing six students, including two to suicide and two in car crashes. But its counselors, "stretched beyond thin,'' in Nelson's words, exemplify the new normal in Minnesota high schools, which have 1,086 guidance counselors to deal with an entire state of teenagers. The state's ratio of 759 students to each counselor has ranked among the nation's worst for years and is currently 49th, ahead of only California.

Anoka Principal Mike Farley brought in an expert recently who counseled disaster workers in Haiti and New Orleans to discuss "compassion fatigue" with his five guidance counselors and staff from across the state's largest school district.

"We're not used to seeing these tired faces in October, and June is a long way off," Farley said. "Our staff gives so much, and you multiply that with all the losses we've been through. It's tough to make a difference in children's lives when there's nothing left in the gas tank."

'They're overwhelmed'

Anoka's heart-wrenching start to the school year, and the Oct. 12 suicide-pact deaths of two Oak-Land Junior High School students in Lakeland, hit front-line counselors hard.

Nelson and her counterparts across the state are trained to guide students through academic challenges, college and career planning and personal and social issues.

"But they're overwhelmed because they're getting sucked into these bigger mental health issues that really go beyond their job description -- yet there's this understanding that they should just step up and do whatever they can," said Tom Ellis, who runs the Center for Grief, Loss and Transition in St. Paul. He'll make a second trip to Anoka to meet with students this week.

"Anytime there's a student death, it sends an emotional shockwave through the community because kids are so deeply connected, and some of mine are really struggling," said Chris Otto, the president-elect of the Minnesota School Counselors Association.

She works at Stillwater Junior High School, near the St. Croix River neighborhood park where the Oak-Land students died.

Otto said the tragedies come at a time when her fellow guidance counselors and their students are under added stress from mortgage foreclosures and job loss. Some kids are even homeless. Meanwhile, social networking and texting have reshaped bullying into a more public and viral problem. And school funding crunches have shifted more responsibilities to counselors.

"We have kids with greater needs for support in tremendously tough economic times," said Otto, who spent a chunk of one recent morning proctoring tests. "But we're so busy out there playing piecemeal and putting Band-Aids on kids."

A mandated freeze

Minnesota law prohibits school districts from cutting the number of jobs held by counselors and other student-support people, such as nurses, social workers and psychologists, from one year to the next. Counselors are paid, like teachers, through union-negotiated contracts, with salaries ranging from $38,000 for those starting out to $80,000 a year for experienced counselors in the metro area with advanced degrees.

"Districts want more flexibility, but we decided not to budge," said state Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, chairwoman of the K12 Finance Division. She points out that Minnesota's "abysmal" counselor-student ratio is three times worse than the 1-to-250 ratio the American School Counselor Association recommends.

"It's nothing to be proud of, that's for sure," Greiling said. "But when you have to cut, and class sizes are readily noticed by parents, support staff can be seen as an easier option."

State Rep. Tom Tillberry, DFL-Fridley, works as a counselor at Roseville Area High School, juggling a caseload of 400-plus students when he's not on leave for the session.

"I calculated the minutes in a year and it comes out to less than an hour per kid a year," he said. "How can we best reach our kids, given all that?"

Yet the Minnesota Association of School Administrators has tried to repeal the law that maintains counselor funding despite the 1-to-759 ratio.

"When you look at the statistics, sometimes you go: 'Oh my goodness, how could it be?'" said Charlie Kyte, director of the superintendents' group.

He said those numbers can be misleading because "an array of people" -- including nurses, social workers, psychologists and chemical health specialists -- share the counselors' front-line load. When all those people are counted, Minnesota's ratio jumps from 49th to 35th nationally, according to Stephanie Ochocki, a social worker at McKinley Elementary School in Ham Lake and the leader of the state school social workers' associations.

"That still doesn't give us as many people as we need," Kyte said. "But right now we're in a cutting-back-staff mode, and we didn't want to take certain categories off the table."

He said the state law that maintains counselor funding "locks your problem into place. It's not going to get worse, but it's not going to get better."

When one-time federal jobs money was available last year, Kyte said, "it would have been an ideal time" to add counselors. "But we couldn't, because when the money ran out, you were stuck having an obligation to continue those jobs."

A survey prepared last year by the policy analysis group Minnesota 2020 found that state lawmakers have cut state aid to schools by 13 percent since 2003. Those cuts, according to Minnesota 2020, have shifted the duties of jettisoned teachers, administrators and others to counselors.

Half the counselors surveyed spend at least 10 days a year directly administering government-mandated tests. Ten percent said they spent 30 days a year on testing.

Counselors says they're being pulled away from helping kids with emotional pressures even as cyber-bullying and suicides grab the headlines.

"If these mental health issues aren't addressed, how in the hell do you expect kids to go in and pass the test if they didn't get breakfast or Dad beat up Mom last night?" said Kris Moe, a counselor at Park High School in Cottage Grove and the president of the state counselors group.

'We run at 750 mph'

Back at Anoka High, the kids keep filtering into Nelson's tiny office. Among her tasks: tracking down the sender of a morbid text message.

Then there's a slew of college recommendations to write, parental e-mails to send and a remedial class to juggle into place for kids who flunked the basic English test required to graduate.

Nelson will also help families navigate the "saturated" mental health bureaucracy, sort out insurance and county aid issues, and mend other scheduling problems big and small.

The little Star Wars Yoda toy on her desk reminds her to be calm and, she hopes, wise.

"We run at 750 miles per hour until June, and sometimes I feel like a squirrel in a cage," she said. "But when kids come in, I try to give them calmness, warmth, humor and friendliness."

Nelson, 54, with three grown kids of her own, has been working in schools for 30 years. Often, when she glances away, she knows kids are using the moment to take a suicide prevention card from her desk. The stack she keeps there has steadily dwindled.

"About once a week, we talk to kids who are having those thoughts," she said.

"Kids are so good at wearing those masks, so you try various counseling methods to peel back the layers of the onion. We try to be proactive, but sometimes it feels like crisis mode all the time."

Just then, the girl who had cleaned out her late boyfriend's bedroom walks in, beaming. She's sporting a new orange T-shirt she designed with an image of the two of them together.

"That's as up as I've seen her in a long time," Nelson said. "And moments like that are what make this job so fun and so extremely interesting."

Staff writer Sarah Lemagie contributed to this report. Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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