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Denise Odello: Support needed for counseling in Morris schools

MORRIS -- I would like to bring the state of counseling at the Morris Area School District to the attention of residents of the district, especially those with children in school.

Currently there is one school counselor for all of the approximately 1,000 students at Morris Area Elementary and High Schools. No matter how wonderful someone is in this position, they cannot possibly be effective for so many students.

The counselor is responsible for providing across the board coverage of a model counseling program (classroom counseling, group counseling, individual counseling) covering academics, personal-social issues and careers. It is unrealistic to expect one counselor to provide all of these services adequately for 1,000 students.

This person is expected to provide classroom counseling for all grades, group counseling, individual counseling, and deal with student crises when they occur. She is also responsible for keeping track of student credits, academic progress, and career counseling at the high school level. She functions as school psychologist, guidance counselor, and social worker. There is no way one position can effectively cover all of these areas for all of these students.

This situation is especially concerning when one considers what other schools in our area do. This information is from this previous fall:

• At West Central Area Schools, there is one counselor for the 305 students at the elementary level. At the upper elementary (5/6) and high school level, there are three positions (social/academic adviser, school psychologist, and social worker) for 427 students.

• At Monticello High School, there are three counselors for 1,209 students.

• At the Osakis Schools, there is a counselor, a counselor’s secretary, a school psychologist and a social worker for 864 students.

• ACGC Schools have two counselors for 790 students.

As of February of this year, the nation-wide average ratio of students to school counselor is 477 to 1; the largest state average in the nation is California with 945 to 1. Morris Area’s ratio is even worse than this.

Several studies have shown the effectiveness of school counseling, such as the following:

• Students who participate in counseling programs have significantly less behavioral problems and a more positive attitude towards school.

• School counselors are effective in reducing students becoming victims at school by assisting victimized children, reducing bullying behaviors, and modifying the school climate and culture.

• Comprehensive school counseling programs is consistently associated in studies with important indicators of student safety and success, such as earning higher grades, having better relationships with their teachers, and believing that their education is important to their future success.

• Students who have access to counseling programs report being more positive and have greater feelings of belonging and safety at school.

• Preventative counseling occurring before students are in crisis reduces the risk of students dropping out of high school later.

Classroom counseling covers students learning a basic feelings vocabulary, self advocacy, friendship making skills, conflict resolution and empathy. These programs deal with coping, grief, violence, drugs, bullying and personal safety. Classroom counseling allows a safe place for children and teens to make themselves heard and the vocabulary to tell others when life is not okay. Group and individual counseling can focus on particular issues for affected students, like recovery from addiction, relational aggression, etc. Individual counseling sessions help particular students in great need.

How can one person effectively do all of this in addition to the academic side of things: academic counseling, tracking school credits, career guidance, etc. for 1,000 students?

Simply put, one person cannot do all of these things effectively. Classroom counseling has been cut back to only certain grades (K, 2, 4, 6 currently), and further reductions are being discussed. Group counseling sessions are infrequent, and individual counseling sessions are so booked that a student may not be able to get preventative help when they really need it. A student crisis trumps everything because there is only one person handling all of these things. Students certainly can’t have access to all of the career and academic counseling they may need with only one person being stretched so thin.

Our current school board and administration is apparently fine with this state, or at least prefer to put resources elsewhere. Superintendent Scott Monson has not presented the addition of another licensed school counselor position to the school board, so now it is up to concerned parents to make their voices heard. Please join me in supporting the hiring of an additional licensed school counselor.

Please consider actions you can take:

• Attend the school board meeting this Monday and voice your concerns during the open comment period.

• Tell other concerned parents about this issue and encourage them to contact members of the school board.

As a parent with young children entering the school district, I want them to have the skills they need to be successful and happy. Clearly counseling is a vital part of this, and our schools are falling far short.