GREENFIELD — High school guidance counselors throughout the county are in the midst of saying goodbye to the class of 2014. While educators hope they’re sending graduates off on the right path to their future, the truth is they just don’t know for certain.
A new report commissioned by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce Foundation finds that school counselors are not able to meet the range of students’ needs, due in large part to a stagnant system and a variety of situations often out of their control.
The report was done to assess the current state of school counseling to see whether the landscape had changed much the past two decades.
A 1994 study identified disparities in the way counselors provided college and career-readiness counseling to students. The new report shows little has changed.
That concerns counselors at Hancock County’s four high schools who see the issue firsthand every day.
With nearly 1,100 students at New Palestine High School, counselor Michelle Long said she and the guidance department staff try to meet with every student to give college and career advice.
However, with only 2½ counselors juggling multiple duties, it’s just not possible to give sound college and career advice to all students.
“It is sad to say I have not met with every single senior and every single freshman this year because of time constraints,” Long said. “It really bugs me.”
Long was assigned this year’s senior and freshman classes. Daniel Weimer, who splits time between NPHS and New Palestine Elementary, counseled sophomores. Kristen Gauly worked with juniors.
“With the caseload, what we’re really able to provide to students is very limited,” Long said. “There are days when there is only one person in the office, and while we never turn kids away, we can’t always give them the time they need.”
According to the chamber’s report, 58 percent of the counselors who responded to a survey say a quarter of their time is spent on college and career-readiness activities. The vast majority – 90 percent – say they spend no more than half their time on that important responsibility.
Greenfield-Central High School counselor Kim Kile said the report is accurate, and she supports the conclusion.
“School counselors are stretched very thin in the duties that we perform,” Kile said. “The amount of time we spend on administrative pieces instead of getting into the data and working with students and parents is probably the most frustrating aspect of it.”
Derek Redelman, Indiana Chamber of Commerce vice president of education and workforce development, notes that a lack of clarity about school counselors’ roles and responsibilities exists in many schools. Duties added to their responsibilities pull counselors in too many directions, he said.
“These other activities might include being the hall monitor, administering tests or even managing the school mascot,” Redelman said in a news release. “The bottom line is that school counselors’ job duties include a growing catch-all list of non-related activities that take them from their primary function.”
Kile said she would love to be able to decipher individual testing results and then work individually with students on college and career readiness, whether getting them ready for college or the job market.
“Helping parents and students understand rigor and being prepared and talking with them and having that opportunity to do that more often would be fabulous,” Kile said. “Those are the types of conversations we need to be having more frequently and more often.”
With nearly 1,400 students, Kile said, the G-C counseling staff of four has about 350 students each to keep track of. Kile, Sarah Knecht, Sherri Foster and Tim Horsman split the student body alphabetically.
Kile said Indiana is 44th in the nation in student/counselor ratio.
“We should be at no more than 200 students per counselor,” Kile said. “We’re double what teachers handle in the classroom.”
Anne Katz is the lone counselor at Eastern Hancock High School. She was responsible for 388 students this year, making sure they found the right vocation or received the correct information about college readiness.
“I’m in charge of college counseling, career counseling, special education testing, academic counseling, regular testing and the master calendar for scheduling,” Katz said.
She said it’s nearly impossible to handle everything the way she would like. Katz said she focuses on the seniors at the beginning of each year before turning her attention to the freshman class.
As the lone counselor, she doesn’t have time to delve into each student’s situation and work as much with those who might not have any interest in college but who still need guidance with career readiness or a vocational school.
“It does seem that there is more emphasis on four-year colleges and that there are more pieces that go with that, so sometimes for those kids who are not going to a four-year college, it is tough on them,” Katz said. “Some of those kids don’t always see that there is an option for them, and we’re trying to focus on that, but it is challenging.”
Mt. Vernon counselor Martha Sands said she estimated only 25 percent to 30 percent of the guidance staff’s day is spent on career counseling and that all three of the school’s counselors have high student-to-counselor ratios.
She works with counselors Lindsey Finn and Jamie Beaver in trying to handle all the needs of more than 1,120 students.
“A counselor’s job involves so much more than just career counseling,” Sands wrote in an email. “We address personal counseling needs as well as teacher and parent concerns.”
Like other districts, because of budget cuts, Mt. Vernon went from four to three counselors a few years ago. But with many state-mandated guidelines to hit, the workload has not decreased.
“This has made it harder to maintain our goals for personal contact with our students as we have high student-to-counselor ratios,” Katz wrote.
The chamber’s report is quick to point out the lack of post-secondary counseling given to students is not the fault of high school counselors.
“What we have is a counseling issue, not an issue with counselors,” chamber President Kevin Brinegar said in a news release. “In fact, the vast majority of counselors in the survey said they would like to spend more time providing college and career guidance.”
A release from the Indiana School Counselor Association, which represents more than 500 counselors throughout the state, agrees with the report.
“We are hopeful that the report will lead to a robust discussion on the future of school counselors in Indiana,” the group said in a news release. “The study illustrates the fact that far too much of school counselors’ time is spent on non-counseling duties.”
While New Palestine High School Principal Keith Fessler said his counselors do a great job considering their responsibilities, he would love to see more state funding designated toward high school counseling.
“Ideally, I’d love to have five or six counselors,” Fessler said. “Our counselors are wearing 10 to 15 different hats at a time ... They don’t get enough time to do what they’d love to do, which is sit with kids and make sure they’re on the right track.”
New Palestine High School: 1,100 students, 2½ counselors, 440 students per counselor
Greenfield-Central High School: 1,400 students, four counselors, 350 students per counselor
Mt. Vernon High School: 1,120 students, three counselors, 373 students per counselor
Eastern Hancock High School: 388 students, one counselor