As a school counselor, Aimee Portteus helps hundreds of kids every year — but it’s the ones she can’t quite help who stay with her.
Just last year, she had two smart, promising students who were all set to head to college. She’d worked with them since they were 9th graders at Plymouth High School in northern Indiana and was thrilled when their hard work in class and on their college applications paid off with acceptance letters.
Then, bad news: both students failed Algebra II and learned they wouldn’t earn their Core 40 diplomas, which are designed to assure graduates are ready for college.
In both cases, the colleges put the students on notice that they were no longer welcome and would have to find another way to pursue their academic dreams.
Portteus was crestfallen, knowing she could have helped these students — if only she’d had more time.
“If I had more time, I would have been able to help them get through that class,” she said.
But time is not a luxury afforded to many Indiana high school counselors. These two students were among 333 students assigned to Portteus last year.
That’s far more students than the 250-student maximum recommended by the American School Counselor Association but by Indiana standards, it’s actually a fairly light load.
The average Indiana school counselor is responsible for 634 students, ranking the state among the worst in the country for counselor workload.
The cost to the state of that workload is enormous, said Matt Fleck, a former counselor and consultant who has studied the challenges preventing school counselors from helping their students succeed after graduation.
“You hear all the time from people ‘I fell through the cracks,’” Fleck said.
If counselors are too busy to help them, “that is is the opportunity (to) …. have a true impact on their lives that is lost,” he said.
As Indiana pushes for more students, especially those from poor families, to complete a college degree or technical training that will help them get valuable jobs, the stakes are high. Advocates say having too-few counselors is one of the biggest barriers holding students back.
It’s a problem exacerbated by the fact that the people charged with guiding students are increasingly saddled with unmanageable workloads — and proposals to help them have so far fallen short.
For Portteus, that means her days are crammed with coordinating student testing, pushing administrative paperwork such as individualized learning plans and planning for academic interventions. She works with the school social worker, collaborates with teachers, coaches students through academic and emotional challenges and helps them figure out whether they’re headed for college or a career after graduation.
That doesn’t leave much time for things like knowing students which are struggling with Algebra II and could use some help. There’s just too many kids who need attention.
“You’d be amazed how much a few extra kids makes a difference,” Portteus said.
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Many things separate the students who graduate and go on to promising careers from those who are left behind — luck, privilege, parent involvement.
But Mandy Savitz-Romer, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a former school counselor herself, says having an available and knowledgeable counselor can make an important difference for kids, especially kids from low-income communities.
“Counselors are essential to closing the achievement gap,” Savitz-Romer said. “But counselors’ roles are often poorly-defined and their conditions are flawed.”
With limited resources and increasing demands from state testing programs and other requirements, counselors are often pulled away from their essential work.
“We did the math a couple years ago,” said Julie Baumgart, chairwoman of the American School Counselor Association board and head of the counseling department at Western Boone Junior-Senior High School in the rural community of Thorntown. “If you take a full-time school counselor, the number of school days, take out the 40 percent of non-counseling tasks, and take out the time for passing periods, we have less than 30 minutes per student to meet their socio-emotional, academic and college and career readiness goals each year.”
A study by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce showed that a majority of counselors reported spending no more than a quarter of their time on college and career counseling and that the amount of time spent on non-counselor work had doubled since 2010.
But as Indiana lawmakers are increasingly pushing for students to be better prepared for college or careers after high school, advocates say the state needs to do a better job of providing counselors with crucial training and needed resources.
One obvious way to increase counseling time is to simply hire more counselors, but efforts to increase funding for Indiana school counselors have not gone far with lawmakers.
When Dennis Kruse, the Auburn Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, last year introduced legislation that would have required every elementary school to have a counselor, he later withdrew the bill due to concerns about its cost.
That has counseling advocates looking for alternatives that would at least reduce some of the extra work that has been landing on counselors. Efforts in the works include a push to give counselors better data to help streamline their efforts, to provide more training opportunities and to provide incentives for schools that could encourage them to invest in their counselors.
The data effort is coming from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. The department sees counselors as key players who can help better direct students to opportunities after high school and is working on putting better tools in their hands.
The department is building a data network designed to forecast the future of Indiana’s job growth and the to identify the skills workers will need. It’s calling for better training for counselors to help them effectively use that information.
“The time they have to spend on actual counseling is small and the work they do is critical,” said Amy Marsh, the department’s chief operating officer for business intelligence. “Because of their time constraints, we need to provide this information regularly and electronically.”
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Another effort to improve student counseling is coming from the Chamber Foundation, a policy research foundation connected with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which has funded several studies into school counselors and how they do their jobs.
One of the foundation’s most recent studies found a divide between what students need to know and what businesses expect. The report called for counselors to be better equipped to help students.
“We are hearing from our businesses that our students aren’t ready,” said Christy Huston, the foundation’s executive director. “The Chamber Foundation believes that collaboration between employers and schools’ counseling staff is ideal for tackling college and career preparedness.”
The foundation is exploring the launching of an awards program that would recognize counseling best practices and schools with excellent school counselors and college and career readiness programs. That program, however, is in the beginning stages, Huston said.
The Indiana Department of Education already recognizes Gold Star schools, which are schools with comprehensive counseling programs that follow state standards. Schools that mimic a national model counseling program proposed by the American School Counselor Association can also earn a special designation from that group.
But doubts remain about whether incentives are enough to get schools to work toward better counseling.
The counselor association will again push for new laws that would require schools to have plans for training counselors in career and college readiness.
“We had proposed a college and career readiness certification program,” Baumgart said of another idea the group pushed that went nowhere.
Butler University offers such a certificate program for school counselors but there is no statewide recognition of the credential.
Still, advocates warn that training and data can only go so far and that counselors won’t be able to get more students into college or career training until they can focus their energy on the duties that matter most.
“As a nation, the first thing is to put a spotlight on these issues,” Savitz-Romer said. “Counselors are an asset to schools, we just haven’t leveraged them.”