The list of challenges confronting many Minnesota students is long and getting longer. Academically, they must choose between schools and classes that best suit their interests, abilities and aspirations. As adolescents, they can use help sorting it all out.
Some students face difficult situations at home and in school that would be daunting for many adults. More than ever, young people need the help, advice and support of school staff.
Many of those duties fall to school guidance counselors, who are charged not only with helping kids set their class schedules but also with assisting students as they explore their high school and postsecondary options. The best counselors help ensure that students are ready for life after high school.
Yet despite the nearly universal acknowledgment of their importance, Minnesota schools remain severely understaffed, with one counselor for every 792 students. That means Minnesota's public schools have fewer counselors per student than all but two other states, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The average student-to-counselor ratio nationally is about 450 to 1, while the American School Counselor Association recommends a 250-to-1 ratio.
Families can help pick up some of the slack, but students also need school-based assistance to make academic choices and handle issues that affect learning. Some states have better student-to-counselor ratios because they mandate them, but Minnesota has no minimum requirement.
Because of Minnesota's strong emphasis on local control when it comes to schools, there isn't much legislative appetite for imposing a statewide requirement. But lawmakers should give serious consideration to a legislative proposal that is expected to be introduced soon that would move districts in the right direction.
Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, is working on a bill that would have the state pay for half the cost of additional counselors when school districts pay for the other half.
The program would be voluntary, and it would give schools some additional funding to hire guidance counselors, social workers, psychologists, chemical dependency counselors and nurses. Schools face many budget needs, however, and to make sure there is statewide participation, the Legislature should consider picking up a larger share of the cost. A state share of 75 percent, for example, would likely lead to more hiring.
In addition to hiring staff, Minnesota schools can improve student support through participation in the training program Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) — a data-driven and educational set of practices ensuring that all students, staff and families are working from the same playbook when it comes to positive behavior and academic achievement.
Nearly a quarter of all state schools have received PBIS training and put together individual school plans that include about 250,000 students.
From 2010-12, PBIS schools experienced a 20 percent reduction in disciplinary actions for students. In his recently proposed budget, Gov. Mark Dayton is recommending an additional $5 million to expand PBIS training to more schools.
In addition, school leaders can apply for grants from the state Department of Human Services and work with county workers to provide counseling and other supportive services for students.
Dayton has cited the counselor shortage as a key weakness in public education in Minnesota. And in proposing additional classroom funding, he has emphasized that more in-school support is needed to help students prepare for college and the workforce.
Kent's bill — along with the additional state funding — could help convince school leaders to make counselors a priority.
"Counseling is seen as an extra layer, a luxury," Mandy Savitz-Romer, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies school counseling, told the New York Times last month. "If I'm a school leader and I'm trying to lower class size, what's 50 more kids on your caseload?"