Recommendation to cut minimum counselor-to-student ratio in Montana draws fire

By: - June 26, 2022 9:33 am

A recommendation from Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen to eliminate a minimum counselor-to-student ratio is controversial. (Provided by Anastasia Shuraev via Pexels.com)

Kaden Sheridan felt anxious to go to class after he went through a four-hour lockdown his freshman year of high school when a student dropped a loaded handgun magazine on campus.

At the time, Sheridan worried about his brother, also in school.

No one knew what the owner of the weapon had been planning in Missoula at the time, Sheridan said, but he later experienced panic attacks about a school shooting.

“It was terrifying for me,” Sheridan said. “I was so afraid to go to class. ‘Today could be the day.’ I was just so worried.”

Sheridan nearly dropped out, but this year, he graduated from Sentinel High School, and he attributes his achievement to his school counselor. Now, he worries a proposal from Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen to eliminate a minimum ratio for counselors to students could make things worse for youth, and the head of the Montana School Counselor Association agrees.

A lockdown during his freshman year after the report a loaded handgun magazine had been found on campus left Kaden Sheridan at Sentinel High School with panic attacks, but he said his school counselor helped him graduate. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

“Our kids need this right now more than ever,” said Renee’ Schoening, executive director of the Montana School Counselor Association. “We have got to dedicate some dollars to mental health support for students, for all kids.”

Sheridan has faced prior struggles, and the incident made his PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder, worse. It made it difficult for him to feel comfortable in class, so his attendance declined, and for a while, he had no motivation to go to class.

Next year, he’s headed to the University of Montana, and he and his mom, Kelly Sheridan, credit school counselor Vanessa Gibson with making a difference for him. She helped Kaden get to class when he was in distress and eventually to graduate, he said, and she helped him understand he could go to college and even get scholarships.

Without Gibson? 

“He would have dropped out of high school,” Kelly said.

This year, the Montana Office of Public Instruction is updating school accreditation standards, and Arntzen has proposed eliminating the minimum ratio of school counselors to students. The minimum standard has been one counselor to 400 students, but Arntzen argues Montana has hired more than required already, 141 FTE, or full-time equivalents, across the state above the 375 minimum FTE, and her plan gives schools flexibility.

“This proves that schools are recognizing the mental health needs of students and that mandating a historic ratio is not necessary,” said OPI spokesperson Brian O’Leary in an email about the proposal.

Arntzen said the following in a statement: “Giving districts the flexibilities needed to innovate will grow student learning and academic achievement, which is what defines school quality.”

The proposal is making its way toward the Board of Public Education via a task force and rulemaking committee. The School Quality Task Force opposed the recommendation to eliminate the minimum ratio, members of the Negotiated Rulemaking Committee have voiced dissent, and the Sheridan family disagrees with it too.

Kelly Sheridan described the idea of cutting a minimum requirement as “unbelievable.”

 “I believe it would be an awful mistake,” Kaden said.

Mental health needs high

The possible change comes under consideration at a time data show the need for mental health support in Montana and across the country is pressing.

For years, Montana has ranked high nationally in suicide rates, and last school year, more youth than in 30 years, or 41 percent, reported feeling so sad or hopeless for two weeks in a row, they couldn’t do their normal activities, according to the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey from 2021.

Across the country, seven out of 10 public schools are seeing an increase in the number of students seeking mental health services, according to a report from the Washington Post. And in Montana, some school counselors report demand on their time is growing even more because of recent cuts to another mental health program for students, CSCT, or Comprehensive School and Community Treatment.

“It just goes against every piece of research out there. It felt very invalidating to the very important work we do every day.

– Tashia Kerins, school counselor, Franklin Elementary

Even before COVID-19, school counselors were seeing more students showing signs of isolation, and the pandemic has pushed families into economic crises, counselors said. Parents have lost jobs and face rent hikes they can’t afford to pay.

Counselors said they see young children throwing tantrums on the playground and teens cutting themselves in high school. Counselors who want to help high achievers write college entrance essays and navigate the complex FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, find themselves spending more time managing emergencies just to keep kids safe.

Schoening, who has a doctorate in counselor education, said the recommendation to cut the ratio of counselors to teachers comes out of a compromised process, and it’s “the exact opposite” of what research suggests children and youth need.

“I don’t know who stands to gain. But it’s not the kids in Montana,” Schoening said.

The Proposal

Chapter 55 of Montana’s Administrative Rules covers standards of accreditation, which the Board of Public Education generally updates every decade. A variety of topics are under review, including overloaded elementary classrooms, civics requirements for high school graduation, and access to technology for students.

In high school, counselors help students with academic growth and career goals, but they are managing more crises. (Provided by Mikhail Nilov via Pexels.com)

All told, OPI has noted the overhaul includes a review of 63 individual rules. The proposal to drop the minimum requirement for school counselors is one of several controversial recommendations, including one to eliminate the minimum ratio of school librarians to students.

OPI notes counseling ratios have remained unchanged for 51 years, since 1971. Instead of requiring a minimum one counselor to 400 students, the current standard, the superintendent is recommending that each “school system” offer a counseling program by hiring a counselor or “Class 6 specialist,” a position that requires completion of a master’s in school counseling or in a program through the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs; contracting with either the counselor or specialist; or “utilizing a consortium, multidistrict agreement, or interlocal cooperative to secure these services.”

A task force that reviewed the proposal recommended moving in the opposite direction. On a 7-0 nonbinding vote — but with a note the superintendent’s proposal is “headed backwards” — the task force moved to drop the ratio from one counselor to 300 students, which the Montana School Counselor Association noted is roughly the current statewide average.

Schoening, who has taught at the University of Montana and at Montana State University-Northern, said now more than ever, children need mental health support from school counselors. Schoening is also a member of the Negotiated Rulemaking Committee, which took up the proposal after the task force.

“They have proven over and over again that access to a school counselor improves attendance, improves academic success, improves all kinds of outcomes for youth,” said Schoening, also a licensed clinical professional counselor and licensed school counselor.

Crises exacerbated

At Sentinel, Gibson’s job includes connecting with students who are stressed or in despair so they can return to the classroom and learn.

“There are kids that are actively suicidal during the day,” Gibson said. “There are kids threatening to hurt themselves or other people. There are kids that are cutting in the building. And we have to figure out how to serve them.”

She might get a call from a parent who just had a teen storm out of the house and drive off and have to figure out the problem: Is that kid safe? Is that kid actively suicidal?

In the last few years, Gibson said she’s also talked with youth who are profoundly sad about the state of the world. They are told they should have a job and a house and pay a mortgage, but she said those goals feel out of reach.

“There’s this fear these things are unattainable,” she said.

CACREP

Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (CACREP) accredits master’s-level counseling programs in the following areas: Addiction Counseling; Career Counseling; Clinical Mental Health Counseling; Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling; College Counseling and Student Affairs; Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling; School Counseling, and Rehabilitation Counseling. In addition, CACREP accredits doctoral programs in Counselor Education and Supervision.

She had one student who had such love for animals, he felt suicidal after learning about the state of the planet, she said. Gibson recalls his comments to her: “I know too much. I just know too much.”

She said school counselors provide mental health support, but they aren’t therapists. In high school, she said they work with students on academic development, career goals, and social-emotional growth.

For example, they write letters of recommendation for students turning in college applications, help them navigate extra help for taking tests, and put on suicide prevention workshops in classrooms. 

But Gibson said in recent years, their focus has been changing: “Even before the pandemic, the shift towards crisis management and mental health support was clear, but it was just exacerbated substantially because of the pandemic.”

Increased ‘behaviors’

At Franklin Elementary School, “behaviors have been off the charts,” such as fighting in the halls, and there too, school counselor Tashia Kerins has shifted to managing more crises than working on prevention. She said her caseload is high, especially because of cuts to CSCT.

As an educator, Kerins said she always knew she wanted to be a counselor.

“When I was a teacher, I saw how much the social-emotional needs of my students impacted their ability to learn and have academic gains,” Kerins said.

School counselors such as Tashia Kerins of Franklin Elementary in Missoula, left, told the Daily Montanan they are dealing with more crises since the pandemic. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

Franklin is a Title I school with approximately 300 students, and many families are struggling, Kerins said. She sees kids who are homeless, parents who lose jobs, deaths in the family, and lost support systems due to COVID-19 or other factors.

“The housing crisis is a big piece,” she said.

She works with children from many families who are having their rent increase or their houses go up for sale with notice they have to be out by the end of the month. They confront a market with few affordable options.

“Those needs and gaps in the community were always there, but I think they are glaringly present, particularly now, because of the pandemic and the isolation and all of the changes that have happened,” Kerins said.

Other staff shortages since the pandemic also affect her time. When someone is out sick, Kerins might have to jump in as a substitute teacher or on recess duty or in the lunchroom, a problem that she said has affected schools across the country.

One child having suicidal thoughts can take up four hours of a day of the only school counselor on staff, she said. And a child who has threatened violence requires ongoing attention.

So staff triage, with children’s safety and mental health emergencies at the top of their priority list. She said she knows the work she does literally saves children’s lives. From an academic standpoint, she opposes the recommendation to do away with the minimum ratio of counselors to students, and she felt rage and some despair in reaction to it.

“It just goes against every piece of research out there,” Kerins said. “It felt very invalidating to the very important work we do every day.”

Rural schools

Alicia Godfrey has worked as a school counselor in her hometown of Roundup for 15 years. She’d like to see the counselor to student ratio go a different direction and believes the one to 300 ratio would help especially rural schools.

“Even at that rate, like I said, it’s hard to keep up with everything that counselors are responsible for doing,” Godfrey said.

Schoening, with the Montana School Counselors Association, explained the way that dropping the required number of children per counselor would help a rural school. If a small school has a lower number of students than 400, she said the school can advertise for a part-time counselor at a prorated level.

Professional counselors are questioning the recommendation from OPI to eliminate the minimum counselor to student ratio. Superintendent Arntzen argues it gives schools flexibility. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

Changing the ratio to one to 300, though, means a small school with an enrollment of 300 can recruit a full-time counselor rather than a part-time one, an easier proposition, said Schoening, also a licensed marriage and family therapist.

“It’s an equality issue,” Schoening said. “Our larger towns have resources. Our rural kids don’t, and one of the things the accreditation standards are intended for is to promote more equity across the state regardless of the size of school or the town that you live in. And her (Arntzen’s) recommendation would really undercut that. It would destroy that equity.”

In an email, OPI argued that 75 percent of Montana schools have a student population under 250 students, and only 52 schools have a student population over 500: “Eliminating top-down one-size-fits-all mandated ratios will give our smaller schools flexibility if their student population grows by only one or two students, which is very common in these small schools.”

In Roundup, Godfrey said one positive outcome from the pressure on counselors is that it’s evidence the stigma around mental health is lessening. But it means more of her time goes to supporting families who are seeking help because swamped counselors aren’t taking referrals.

“I spent more hours this year on the phone and meeting with parents just trying to help them with their kids’ needs than in the past years,” Godfrey said.

When Godfrey isn’t managing crises, she’s teaching lessons on topics such as kindness and empathy. She said the goal for kindness and empathy mirrors the goals OPI has that schools have an inclusive culture, encourage acceptance of others, and discourage bullying.

“The truth is when your school is a good place to be and kids like coming, you’re more likely to get them to graduate,” Godfrey said.

Questioned process

Service on the Negotiated Rulemaking Committee is voluntary, and Schoening said she was transparent from the start about her motivation for joining. For more than a decade, she said, school counselors have reported being too overwhelmed and understaffed to serve children effectively.

“We have got to do something about the counselor ratio,” Schoening said.

She thought her committee would be taking up recommendations from the task force, which voted yes on a one to 300 ratio for counselors to students. Then, Arntzen’s proposal arose — “out of left field,” Schoening said.

“A week before their process was even done, we got recommendations from the superintendent, which were a total departure from the direction they (the task force) were headed,” Schoening said. “So she recommended changing the elective requirements in the middle schools, doing away with any ratios tied to librarians or counselors … So what that did is it completely derailed our process.”

In a column about the update, Mary Moe, an educator and former legislator from Great Falls, noted the Negotiated Rulemaking Committee operates by consensus: “All members must agree on alternative recommendations or only her (Arntzen’s) recommendations will go to the Board of Public Education.

“Elsie has placed two of her employees on the committee as voting members. Not surprisingly, their positions are not ‘in alignment’ with the majority of other members.”

On behalf of OPI, O’Leary said the process has been transparent, and “the current ratios restrict how the role of counselors are filled.” Schools shouldn’t be constrained by their size, he said, and with flexible recommendations, school districts may employ; contract; use a multi-district agreement; or cooperative in filling the role of counselors.

“The superintendent’s recommendations focus on how students are served and removes the discrimination based on school size for hiring counselors,” O’Leary said in an email.

The rulemaking committee is nearing the end of its process, and the Board of Public Education will then take up the updates.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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