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Area schools lacking in counselors

The Department of Education recently ranked Minnesota 48th in the nation for having an inefficient amount of school counselors – an average of 792 students to every one counselor. 

The recommended number is one counselor to every 250 students.

The low grades earned the state some unflattering media attention, as Governor Mark Dayton then promptly declared the following week “School Counseling Week.”

So how do area schools stack up against those not-so-impressive state numbers?

Detroit Lakes “Are we adequately staffed on school counselors?” repeated Superintendent Doug Froke. “No. We’re not.”

Froke says while there are areas within the district that are well-equipped to handle the case loads, other areas are left lacking.

Anxiety, depression and social emotional issues seem to plague today’s children more than ever, and the Detroit Lakes area is no exception.

“It’s definitely on the rise,” said Detroit Lakes School Counselor Sara Pender, who says she is constantly trying to help local teens deal with mental health issues – a problem she claims has risen over the past few years in part due to social media.

“When we grew up, somebody would have to actually call me at home if they wanted to be mean to me,” said Pender, “Now, they just grab their phone and text or tweet or post anything they want about anybody they want, and they can even do it anonymously.”

Pender says easy access to mobile devices and repeated exposure to the negative side of social media is changing the way local youth view themselves, and from where they’re standing, it’s often times not a pretty sight.

“It’s changing the way they think about themselves, feel about themselves, and it’s causing a lot of anxiety and depression,” she said, adding that once kids fall victim to an unflattering tweet, Snapchat, or Instagram message, they will literally carry that scrutiny around with them all day and night.

This is an issue that Pender and the two other counselors in the high school (making it a respectable 275 to 1 ratio) often inherit, as she says many kids are already beginning to face some of these issues in middle school (where there are two counselors for 700 students) and even in the elementary schools where the ratio is overwhelming.

Rossman Elementary has 1 to 575 students and Roosevelt has one social worker (who fills the position of counselor) to 640 students. This is where the problem lies.

Paula Jones is the social worker at Roosevelt, and has been working with Detroit Lakes students for the past 22 years. She, too, sees the dark side of technology taking a toll on children.

“Ipads are great, and the fact that the district provides them now to kids whose families wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them is very good, but I’m really afraid of what’s happening with our students in the amount of time they’re spending on those iPads,” said Jones.

“They’re not interacting with people as much – they think it’s just so much easier to correspond through technology, so that when it comes time to have a real conversation with somebody, they can’t stay with it – they don’t know how to do it as well.”

Jones says she’s seen a lot more mental health issues at the elementary level over the past handful of years, and along with technology, also puts some blame on other issues such as poverty in Becker County, violent and racy TV shows and video games and a growing concern that parents seem to be having a harder time telling their children “no” and meaning it.

“We’ve had to do so much re-teaching lately with children who haven’t really had any boundaries at home – even loving homes,” said Jones, “and so they come to school not really understanding what they can and cannot do and say.”

Jones says this inconsistency is confusing and ultimately stressful for children whose parents simply make the mistake of trying too hard to be their friends.

“And so the amount of anxiety we see now is what really stands out to me,” said Jones, who along with Pender says if schools were better funded for counseling, they could do so much more in preventative programming such as classroom presentations and group support for the issues that seem to be hitting a big portion of students.

“Because once you’re playing catch up, and you’re having to address individual needs, it becomes harder and takes more time,” said Pender, who says along with a growing number of those individual cases, she and the other counselors at the high school see an increase in the amount of work they need to do in other areas of the field.

These include career path and academic counseling, as post-secondary education opportunities and mandatory portfolios for each student are more time consuming.

The large amount of paperwork that accompanies all this doesn’t help.

“Even if we had a registrar who could help with some of the paperwork, even that could free us up to have more contact with the students,” said Pender, who believes social media education for parents needs to start catching up with its advancements and dangerous issues accompanying them.

Around the region School districts surrounding Detroit Lakes are reporting the same issues.

At Frazee, the ratio there stands at one counselor to 400 students, and Superintendent Terry Karger says that’s not enough.

“Eight years ago we had three counselors at FHS – one counselor worked with junior high students, one with high school students, and one did more preventative and dealt with chemical health,” said Karger, adding budget cuts were to blame for losing two counselors.

“They all supported each other to provide a comprehensive program to better meet student needs. Now we have one counselor for the whole building.”

Karger says he would love to have at least one more counselor again to deal with the rising problem of mental health needs and texting/social media issues students in his school are facing.

In Waubun-Ogema, there is one counselor to 575 students.

“Ideally the ration would be smaller, especially if we really want the World’s Best Workforce to really succeed,” said Superintendent Brandon Lunak, who says their school counselor is used much more now in “intervention” situations and that her job has become increasingly demanding and diverse.

“Students need more one-on-one help for their career and college planning in addition to the social/emotional help that students need. We would also like to see the state address mental health needs and feel that every district should have a mental health provider in their school in addition to what we currently have.”

In Lake Park-Audubon, the district has continued to operate on two full-time counselors for a total k-12 population of roughly 730.

“LP-A administrative staff and counselors have needed to prioritize, identify the most critical needs, and then provide services as efficiently as possible,” said Superintendent Dale Hogie. “There are programs we would like to continue but the time is just not there for two staff members when students’ needs continue to escalate.”

Having said this, Hogie also adds that he is not in favor of “mandating” a counselor to student ratio.

“These positions can be difficult to fill and sometimes may go unfilled because there are no appropriately licensed counselors available,” said Hogie, who would like to retain access to new funding to provide some services through alternative programs.

School counselors are not mandated for Minnesota schools like they are in North Dakota and many others, and because of this, they often find themselves on the cutting block when hard decisions and budget cuts need to be made.

“And that’s unfortunate because if kids are worried about some of the big things going in their lives, sometimes getting to English class doesn’t seem all that important,” said Pender. “And if these problems get in the way of kids graduating, then what are we doing here?”

Paula Quam

Paula Quam is the editor for Forum Communications Co. newspapers in Detroit Lakes, Perham and Wadena, all in Minnesota.

(218) 844-1466