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Letter: Counseling is foundational to student quality of life, success

At the May 16 meeting of the Morris Area School Board, Superintendent Scott Monson and the Finance Committee presented information regarding the proposed preliminary budget for fiscal year 2014. It was clear that the work had taken considerable time and careful effort, and certainly the question of additional counseling staff was one of the dynamics to be dealt with.

As a strong supporter of arts in the schools, I was pleased to see that there is the demand for more music time in both the elementary and the high school. However, since I see quality school counseling as even more foundational, I am deeply disappointed that $23,500 can be found for music, physical education, and an assistant advisor for Business Professionals of America (a fine high school extracurricular organization) but not $27,000 for a part time qualified school counselor. I listened with great interest to preliminary reports on the iPad pilot project in the elementary school, heartened to hear of teachers who ensure that the game content is solid for learning while still engaging students. But I cannot support the concept of further investment in iPads without first addressing our grave deficit in school counseling staff time.

It is not alarmist to admit that we have students, particularly in the high school, who have found themselves suicidal. It is statistically impossible that we would not. We know that school counselor Tammy Roth and many attentive, caring teachers have been crucial in providing life-saving intervention. But the day one student falls between the cracks is the day we will all regret not having done just a little bit more to see that someone trained and skilled was available to help. Even better, additional staff may help keep a student from reaching such depths in the first place, so that student can be about the business of learning, which is the primary purpose of our schools.

In addition, consider the classroom personal development that is being skipped in elementary grades and the cost of this to youngsters who struggle to keep their lives together and function well in school. Remember the students who struggle for any reason at school, before the diagnoses of a learning disability or the awareness of a family crisis or difficult home situation; the school counselor is the critical step in turning the situation around. Then there are the students whose parents are not aware or knowledgeable about post-high school options, students whose life options are greatly diminished when no one has the time, knowledge, and skills to provide them resources and encouragement for college, job training, military, or other post-graduation programs.

Grants and other funds can be sought for iPads. Parents and community members work to support music, arts, and sports for our children. It would be much better to provide all these things through our own budget, to maintain quality, consistency, and oversight. But at least there are available alternatives. There is no alternative to a school counselor for the vast array of duties the position provides. Boosting student success in academics, test scores, and the whole of their lives demands the services that only the school counselor can competently provide.

An additional counselor is not icing on the cake. It is foundational to student quality of life and success in academics, life skills, and future vocations. Most of our administration, teachers, and staff recognize this. I urge concerned stakeholders, from parents to local employers and members of the local community, to advocate on behalf of our children with school board members. The budget will be before the board on June 17. It is time for our school board to recognize the priority of returning to a more reasonable, sane licensed counselor-to-student ratio, and to act.