School counselors can do great work — when there’s enough of us | Opinion

March 3, 2022 6:00 am

Photo courtesy of National Education Association.

There have been many challenging days in my job as a licensed high school counselor in Minneapolis Public Schools this year, but there have also been moments that bring tears to my eyes and joy to my heart because I know I’ve made a difference for my students.

This fall we had a new student in our building who had missed a lot of school due to a death in the family. The student’s team of teachers, the social worker, administrator and myself, a school counselor, worked to support a student as they started a new school so soon after a loss.

The family was so grateful and wrote a heartfelt note about how much our support meant to them. For me, it was one of the high points of the most difficult year of my 13-year career, but it was also bittersweet. Not all outcomes are so good.

MPS school counselors are stretched too thin and our students aren’t getting the support they deserve. There aren’t enough of us. It’s the same for all the MPS mental health professionals. The situation isn’t sustainable or fair to anyone. It’s why I voted to authorize my union to strike if our district leaders won’t agree to hire more mental health support staff.

If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that kids need more, not less. Our students have suffered more trauma from the pandemic, the police murder of George Floyd, and the anxiety of where and when they will attend school than any group of young people has endured for generations.

School counselors serve at the forefront of dealing with that trauma and helping kids learn how to heal. However, instead of adding more support for our students, MPS has cut many school counselors from the 2022-23 budget. With over $250 million in federal pandemic relief funds, why would MPS decrease the number of supports for our students?

Minnesota schools already fall short of the ratio of one school counselor to every 250 students recommended by the American School Counseling Association, but most parents are surprised to learn how much worse the MPS ratio is compared to its closest neighbor.

There are 63 school counselors funded by schools in MPS compared to more than 170 in the Saint Paul Public Schools, or SPPS. In MPS, there are only four elementary school counselors for the district’s 42 elementary schools. In SPPS, there are at least two school counselors in every elementary school.

The choice to understaff school counselors is detrimental because we fill many roles. We’re often leaders in racial equity programs and teach classroom lessons on anti-racism, diversity and relationships. As a group that’s 30% educators of color, we bring a wealth of lived experience to the content.

Along with other members of the care team, we provide mental health and social-emotional support to individual students and other educators. We work with educators and students to create a healthy school culture that encourages learning and reduces suspensions.

And, of course, school counselors assist students with their academic planning and progress. We help students enroll in MPS schools and pick their classes. We work with students to plan their path after graduation, including how to pay for post-secondary training and education.

Everyone in our school community — students, parents and educators — wants our students to be supported emotionally and have access to a trusted expert who can help them achieve their dreams after high school. A sufficient number of school counselors is vital to achieving that goal and Minneapolis parents should demand better for their students.

It’s time for district leaders to do what’s right for our students and compromise at the negotiations table with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and guarantee parents that there will be at least one licensed school counselor in every building, a key piece of my union’s mental health bargaining proposal.

To be clear, the support our students need requires more professionals than school counselors. My colleagues who are social workers, psychologists, chemical dependency counselors and school nurses have shared similar concerns about staff levels in their areas of expertise.

The teams of school counselors and other professionals that support students can do amazing things — when there are enough of us. I can remember hugging and jumping up and down with a student who overcame incredible personal challenges to earn a full ride to an Ivy League school, hearing one of my students give a beautiful speech at graduation and watching my students grow from anxious freshmen to poised young adults in four years of high school.

But it’s getting harder and harder to make memories like that when we’re rushing from crisis to crisis because MPS refuses to put its budget behind its promises. Every student in MPS should have the opportunity to attend a safe and stable school with access to licensed school counselors and other mental health professionals. It’s time for change. Our students cannot wait.

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Kelsey Clark
Kelsey Clark

Kelsey Clark is a licensed school counselor in the Minneapolis Public School District and a member of the bargaining team of the teacher chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.