Weather Forecast


Minnesota 2020 report: State dangerously lags nation in school counselors

At nearly twice the national recommendation, Minnesota ranks 49th in the nation in a public school counselors/student ratio.

"Minnesota is not very good," said John Fitzgerald, a Minnesota 2020 fellow on education issues. "The National Counselor Association recommends 250 counselors per student; the national average is roughly 450 students per counselor. Minnesota is 800 and sometimes 900 to 1."

That steep deficiency in school counselors can lead to increasing and unmet student needs for mental health and academic support, said Fitzgerald, who wrote a report, "Minnesota's School Counseling Crunch," for the progressive think tank Minnesota 2020.

Fitzgerald spoke Tuesday to the Northwestern Minnesota Counselors Association's annual meeting Tuesday at Bemidji State University, where he said his report was well received.

"It's exactly what they had been thinking for a long time," Fitzgerald said.

Minnesota has retained its 49th position since 2000-01, he said, while Wisconsin has bounded in the high 20s and low 30s as Iowa during those years ranked between 16th and 24th.

The report proves "that counselors are certainly not the piece to make kids reach their full potential but a piece, an important piece. ... A, not only are there not enough counselors to get the job done, as witnessed by dropout rates, achievement gaps, but B, the counselors we have ... are getting squeezed by tests."

Roles for counselors have shifted over the years, he said, with counselors today assuming the role of mental health screener and academic watchdog, Fitzgerald said. But they also are the school's chief test proctors and career or high education counselors.

"Most counselors are responsible for all the tests in the school," he said, adding that there are a number of Minnesota tests required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and college prep tests. "All of these people have master's degrees and all are highly trained professionals, but they spend hours sharpening No. 2 pencils."

Fitzgerald's report figures that high school counselors spend 20 to 30 days a year preparing, administering and scoring tests.

"That's roughly a month out of the year that they're just not counseling," he said.

Fitzgerald said a Cloquet counselor found a girl in tears pounding on an auditorium door, asking for help, but he declined because he had to proctor a test. An elementary counselor in Moorhead related a similar story.

"They're jobs is trying to help these kids get through whatever hump in the road it is that they've got in front of them, and testing is taking that away from them," Fitzgerald said.

The Minnesota 2020 report also said that mental health care needs are exploding.

"More than 90 percent of Minnesota counselors say they have helped students deal with interpersonal and family problems, depression, aggressive or disruptive behaviors, anxiety and ADHD in the last 12 months. More than 76 percent say students' mental health care needs have increased in the past 24 months," said the report.

More counselors may have helped Beltrami County several years ago when it was No. 1 in the state in teenage suicides, he said. Adding that counselor levels have remained flat since 2000.

Bemidji High School counselor Jennifer Voge, who with counselor Judy Comstock, attending the BSU meeting, said the Bemidji School District has no elementary counselors, one Middle School counselors and two High School counselors, with more than 4,000 students in the district.

With 1,400 students in Bemidji High School, the counselor ratio is 1 to 700 students, with a paraprofessional in the Career Center, Voge noted.

Counselors can help in a number of different ways in suicide prevention efforts, Fitzgerald said. "They can not only deal with the individual, but they can deal with the groups. Suicide awareness is almost as important as dealing with the depressive or suicidal person."

If a student knows things are spinning out of control and can't talk to his parents, friends don't understand, "at least there is that one person behind that door that I can knock on, close the door and he won't blab to everybody," Fitzgerald said. "That's got to make a difference."

Teachers and principles can do the same, but they have a lot on their plates already, he said.

The report also proffers that the high students-per-counselor ratio leads to more dropouts, as compared with Wisconsin and Iowa with more counselors per students.

"The state has cut aid to schools an inflation adjusted 13 percent since 2003," states the report. "This has caused schools to drastically reduce staff, which in turn has moved many duties previously performed by teachers, paraprofessionals and secretaries onto school counselors."

Instead of helping students get into college or helping them with personal problems, the report said, counselors are performing minor duties such as hall monitoring and parking lot supervision.

The answer, Fitzgerald said, is more money to hire more school counselors. But that shouldn't be done at the expense of other needed budget expenses, such as aid for nursing homes, he said.

School spending needs to be prioritized, almost from the first dollar spent, he said. "We need a transparent system that says this is what a Minnesota education consists of. ... Let's come to a consensus -- transparent and one that everybody can agree on, but as a state, this is what a state education should consist of and then let's get it."

Whatever level is decided for school counselors, it shouldn't put the state at 49th in the nation, he said.

"We shouldn't have the dropout rates we have," Fitzgerald said. "We shouldn't have the horrendous achievement gap that we have. And if having more counselors fixes that, I say that's money well spent."