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Pioneer Editorial: More school counselors a necessity

Students today come to school with a lot more baggage than any generation before them. More times than not, problems at home follow them to school -- pending or recently concluded divorce of their parents, making ends meet in this economy with one or both parents laid off, or just making do in a single-parent household.

Add to that peer pressure like no previous generation has seen, gangs and substance abuse, and a faster paced lifestyle complete with high-tech gadgets such as cell phones and texting.

It also means that more and more children are suffering from and brining their mental health issues to school, where one would hope someone would recognize the danger signs and seek help for troubled youth.

But according to a study by Minnesota 2020, a progressive think tank, the first line of that defense -- school counselors -- is a weak link. Minnesota ranks 49th in the country in its ratio of counselors to students, ranging between 800 to 900 students per counselor, more than three times the recommended ratio by school counselors' national association.

And counselors today are doing more chores handed down by laid off staff, such as administering and giving tests, keeping them away from serving as screeners of mental health or academic problems.

More school counselors is the obvious answer, but funding them isn't so easy given the precarious shape of the state budget.

But there may be some possible federal help, according to Sen. Al Franken's office, which read the Pioneer's account Wednesday of the lack of school counselors in Minnesota.

Franken, DFL-Minn., last month signed onto a bill authored by Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., which would train, place and retrain school counselors, school social workers and school psychologists in school districts that need them.

"Minnesota students deserve personal attention from school counselors," says Franken. "On everything from choosing the right college to dealing with social issues affecting their performance, our kids need a professional to talk to within their school."

Experts have shown that social, emotional and behavioral issues interfere with children's' ability to succeed in school. Without adequately staffed student support services, teachers are given the burden of working with kids' social and behavioral problems as well as academic issues.

The Increased Student Achievement through Increased Student Support Act would provide competitive grants to boost attraction and retention, and also create a student loan forgiveness program for school counselors, social workers and psychologists who work for five years in low-income school districts.

The Bemidji School District is no different. With two high school counselors and 1,400 students, that's a ratio of one counselor for 700 students. We'd like to think we can do better.