Arizona school advocates worry about keeping counselors as federal funding set to expire
On any given day Steve Kanner, a school counselor at Hamilton High School, can be found speaking to a classroom of students or having a one-on-one conversation with a student.
Hamilton High has a ratio of 400 students to one counselor; the average ratio in the state of Arizona is 650 students to one counselor for K-12, according to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA).
Hamilton High School, which is in the Chandler Unified School District, has 10 counselors, two social workers and three psychologists. Hamilton brought on extra counselors and social workers when the school, along with other schools across the country, received federal funding during the pandemic. School districts could decide how to appropriate funds within certain parameters.
Chandler Unified used some of the funds to hire new school counselors and social workers. In the fiscal year 2021-2022, Chandler Unified had 93 school counselors and 19 social workers. For the fiscal year 2022-2023, the district has 98 counselors and 23 social workers.
Some of that funding will expire later this year, and the extra counselors brought on by schools using the funding may be let go, ASCA Executive Director Jill Cook said. “Our hope is as federal funding may wane that schools in the state will find ways to keep these positions in schools.”
Cook emphasized the difference between school counselors today and guidance counselors from years ago.
“We are no longer guidance counselors who maybe do clerical work, just work on the college application process for students or work on disciplinary issues. Today’s school counselors work with all students in a school and spend 80% of their time in direct and indirect services to students,” Cook said, noting classroom instruction, small group work, individual counseling and consultation and working with families take up most of their time.
Based on several studies, ASCA recommends a ratio of 250 students to one counselor at K-12 schools. As of 2022, the national average was 408 students to one counselor, according to ASCA.
Using a variety of studies, ASCA draws a connection between a lower student-to-counselor ratio and increased standardized test performance, attendance, GPA and graduation rates and decreased disciplinary infractions. Studies also show lower ratios increase the likelihood of students having conversations with school counselors regarding college and postsecondary plans.
“We are now starting to get these research results that show the impact of having this comprehensive approach to this work and what it can mean for students in a school,” Cook said.
School counselors today wear many hats beyond just helping with academics, according to Mandy Tietjen, who has been a school counselor at Hamilton High for six years.
“They don’t see the days that we’re in classes, all six periods presenting, the one-on-one sit-downs we’re having for registration for the last five weeks, where we’re meeting with every student. The meetings we’re having with families because they want to talk about college or maybe their kid won’t get out of bed and come to school,” Tietjen said.
School counselors’ role is to help students navigate their high school years, work toward meeting personal goals and social-emotional needs, and communicate with families, Kanner and Tietjen said.
Tietjen said counselors are like a communication hub for parents and students. They can answer parents’ questions and connect them with teachers if needed.
Kanner has worked in the district for 27 years.
“Every day I try to come in and do the best job I can and not really think about how many students I have,” Kanner said. “Because if we’re in the classroom, I’m just thinking of the class, or if I’m talking to a student one-on-one, I am just focused on the student.”
Their day-to-day is based on the students and their needs.
“I always have my to-do list, but first thing in the morning, a student walks in and says, ‘Yesterday my dad got diagnosed with cancer,’ and your to-do list goes back behind you, and now we’re present, and we’re talking about that, and we’re on the phone with the parents, and we’re talking to social workers, and we’re coming up with resources,” Tietjen said.
School counselors are important for school function and students’ experience and success, ASCA’s Cook said, and school administrators agree.
“We are thankful for our counselors every day,” Chandler Unified School District Superintendent Franklin R. Narducci said in an emailed statement. “School counselors help our students dream big. We are proud of the work CUSD counselors do. We know it is not easy and sometimes goes unnoticed.”
Kanner highlighted the continuity counselors maintain with their students as an important part of their job. Tietjen agreed.
“Our kids see the same counselor, the same administrator all four years, and we’re able to communicate,” Tietjen said. “If there’s a discipline issue, we have a little insight about that and what social-emotional needs could be supported.”
Kanner and Tietjen hope their school and others can keep on counselors who were hired with pandemic relief funds.
“There’s only so much time in a day, and if you took away one of our people, then that means less time,” Tietjen said. “Everything equates to how much we have to give each individual student.”