In California, there was one counselor for every 810 students in 2009-10. Nationally, there were almost twice as many. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor to 250 students.
“We don’t have enough counselors in schools,” said Art Revueltas, deputy superintendent of Montebello Unified School District near Los Angeles. “As students transition out of our schools, they’re abandoned. There’s no mental health services for them out there.”
School psychologists are even rarer, with estimates ranging from 4,000 to 4,500 for the state’s 6.2 million public school students.
After the Newtown shooting, “there has been an increased focus on mental health issues,” said Eric Sparks, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association. People are talking about “increasing school counselors, social workers and school psychologists in schools to identify students who might have needs and work with them before the situation becomes severe for the student.”
California has been heading in the opposite direction. Since the recession, the number of counselors has been dropping. An EdSource survey in March 2012 of the 30 largest school districts found that when economic times are tough, many districts cut back on counseling staff. Between 2007–08 and 2011–12, the number of counselors in the 30 largest districts had dropped by 20 percent. Of those 30 districts, 22 had cut back on their counseling staff.
“We have less money to service kids whether it be reading or math or mental health,” Revueltas said. “Mental health seems to be cut first because we have to do reading and math.”
Many elementary schools have no counselors. At the high school level, a counselor’s main job can be making sure that students graduate and take the courses they need to get into college. “Counselors are torn between being mental health and academic counselors,” Revueltas said. “Most kids need academic, school, life counseling, not necessarily crisis counseling.” A very small number need intensive intervention – essentially therapy, he said.
By federal law, school psychologists also are responsible for counseling and determining class placement of the district’s special education students. In many districts, that leaves them little time to counsel others.
Many districts with few counselors send their troubled students to community day schools, which are supposed to provide counselors as well as teachers. However, the state law that created these schools encouraged, but did not mandate, counseling. Legislators have also cut funding for those schools by 30 percent and in February 2009 flexed the funds, meaning that districts can use the formerly earmarked funds for any educational purpose.
“Districts are closing community day schools and putting the money in other programs,” said Dan Sackheim, education program consultant on community day schools for the California Department of Education. Sackheim said currently there are about 350 such schools compared with 400 in 2007–08, before flexing the funds was possible.
Meanwhile, the federal government has stepped in to help a few districts, and the House of Representatives is considering a bill in committee that would provide funding for more high school counselors.
Fourteen California districts, including Montebello, have received federal awards to expand counseling programs. “School counselors are a vital resource for students and educators, and play a key role in creating safe and productive learning environments,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in announcing the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Program awards in September.
Revueltas of Montebello said the grant is aimed at students on the margins and includes funds for family support as well. “When kids are dealing with mental health issues, it takes the whole family to support them,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Cerritos) introduced legislation in March 2011 entitled “Put Counselors Where They’re Needed” that would set up another competitive grants program aimed at providing funds for counselors in high schools with a high number of dropouts. The bill is currently in committee.
“If we are serious about leaving no child behind, we must admit that schools are not factories and children are not widgets,” she said in a statement in support of the legislation on her website. “No child should miss out on a quality education because his or her school was too cash-strapped to afford enough school counselors.”