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‘The support they deserve’: Seeking solutions for Minnesota's school counselor shortage

Counselor MaKenzie Johnson stands among passing students in Hermantown High School on Friday. The recommended ratio of counselors to students is 1-to-250. Minnesota currently averages one counselor for every 659 students. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service1 / 2
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HERMANTOWN, Minn. — MaKenzie Johnson was standing in the hallways of Hermantown High School on Friday when a student came up to her with a few questions.

That scene — a counselor and student conversing — is a rare thing in many schools in Minnesota and across the country.

The American School Counselor Association says there should be no more than 250 students per one counselor. In Minnesota, the rate is more than double that.

One bill before the Minnesota Legislature would require school districts place a counselor in every building, which would go a long way toward reducing the student-per-counselor burden.

“One in five adolescents have a mental health diagnosis, and we’re kind of the front lines for mental health in our buildings,” Johnson said. “I think once a school had access to a school counselor, regardless of their experience, I don’t know if they would ever be able to get rid of that position once they realize the player that we are.”

David Thompson, a counselor at Hermantown High School, said he believes being proactive with mental health in schools could help prevent future tragedies.

“We firmly believe that when the really, really bad things have happened in schools in our country, it is almost always a kid that felt disconnected and we feel that the more mental health supports there are in schools, the more connected kids are going to feel, the more supported teachers are and the more supported families are,” he said.

‘A better job’

When John Engelking took over as superintendent in Proctor in 2009, he said the school district was 50th in the state for student-counselor ratios.

“I thought it was terrible,” he said. “We just had to do a better job.”

So Engelking’s administration and the school board made a commitment to increase the number of counselors. Today, they have two counselors at the high school, one at the middle school, one at Bayview Elementary and a part-time counselor at Pike Lake Elementary.

In the 2009-10 school year, Proctor’s counselor to student ratio was 1-to-452; that was brought down to 1-to-358 as of last school year.

“Kids come from such different environments today that we need to provide our kids with the support that they deserve,” Engelking said.

Proctor is using part of its crime levy to help pay for the counselors. According to Engelking, that levy money can be used for a range of security initiatives, but they choose to use it on counselors as a way to be proactive, instead of reactive.

“If we can identify students early on who need some support or other services that we don’t have here but can refer them to and help families get the support, we definitely feel that will cut off any potential crisis situations down the road,” said Proctor High School principal Tim Rohweder.

Counselors can also help identify learning barriers that may affect a student’s ability to focus on education, Rohweder said: “Having the counselors being the first line of defense on that is extremely important for the student's education overall.”

Engelking said he supports the legislation that would require at least one counselor in every school building, which would reimburse districts for the cost of hiring counselors for two years.

“It really is about time that our Legislature acts and provides some funding for counselors,” he said.

Legislative help

State Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, says her bill to require a counselor for every school building may not be perfect, but it would help bring down Minnesota’s counselor-to-student ratio.

“I know that other states like Wisconsin have made this requirement,” she said.

The legislation would provide state money to help pay for those positions in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, but how much has not been specified. The bill has not received a hearing and is unlikely to advance this year.

Dziedzic said cost shouldn’t be the driving factor on whether schools have counselors or not — it’s about the well-being of children and, in the long run, society.

“Everybody always talks about the cost, but you could turn that around and say what is it costing our students if they can’t get the help they need to live a full, healthy life,” Dziedzic said.

Gov. Tim Walz said there may be other ways to approach the issue.

“We need to have more resources in the schools, both from the mental health, behavioral side, and on the career counseling side,” he said. “I'm not certain if that is a one-size-fits-all that needs to be in every building. I do think that if you give the resources and the creativity to those local school districts, they'll figure out how to best use it.”

Walz added that requiring more counselors exposes another problem — finding qualified people to fill those roles.

“In many cases, there's not enough of these people out there, even if we wanted to hire them,” he said. “We're going to need to start a pipeline of training people and for those folks to know there's going to be a job for them.”

The governor’s proposed school budget would increase spending by $733 million, though a divided Legislature will need to reach its own agreement before the session wraps up in May.

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