Minnesota school counselors struggle with huge caseloads

Sign of the times
Laurie Boeschans, a school counselor who works with 600 students at Detroit Lakes Middle School, says she worries about the students who come for help and find no one in the counseling office.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Students hurry through the halls of Detroit Lakes Middle School to their next class. There are the typical middle school hi-jinks and giggles.

"I think those crises are put off until they're bigger and harder to solve and there's more trauma with it."

"They make a lot of funny noises don't they?" Laurie Boeschans says with a laugh as she walks to her office.

As a middle school counselor, Boeschans is responsible for up to 600 students. She enjoys the funny noises and smiles. But she also sees the pain, like students hurting themselves.

"I would say in the last few weeks we've been seeing a lot of kids that have been doing cutting. That's something we take real seriously. There are a lot of kids that come down with depression and anxiety," said Boeschans. "We get the whole gamut here. It's pretty mild stuff, you know, 'Did you turn your homework in,' all the way up to 'I've got a plan to kill myself tonight.'"

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There's a sign on the counter in the counseling office. It reminds students to leave a note when the counselor is not in the office, or busy.

"It's tough to catch all those kids as they come through and I always worry that there's kids that come in and there's no one available and they just leave and no one sees them and hears what their concerns are," said Boeschans.

Still she feels fortunate to work in Detroit Lakes because the school maintains a lower than average counselor to student ratio.

Detroit Lakes School Board member Luann Porter says that decision was made about ten years ago when the district needed to cut cut millions of dollars.

She says the board decided eliminating counselors would put too big a burden on classroom teachers.

Laurie Boeschans
Counselors in many Minnesota schools have caseloads of more than 500 students.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

"We think once we put a child into a classroom with a good teacher they're set to go. But that's not the case," said Porter. "If their bellies are hungry or they're not sleeping at night or there's no parental supervision and homework isn't getting done, a teacher can't address that in the classroom."

The average Minnesota school counselor is responsible for about 750 students. That's three times the recommended counselor to student ratio.

A survey conducted by the Minnesota School Counselors Association of 89 schools in west central Minnesota found elementary schools averaged 1,468 students for each counselor. Middle schools averaged 517 students for each counselor and the ratio fell to 430 to 1 at the high school level.

Across the state dozens of school districts have no guidance counselors.

Five years ago Morris Area Schools had three counselors. Today there's one.

Tammy Roth counsels nearly 1,000 students from kindergarten to high school seniors.

"I love my job, that's the thing. I love being a school counselor. It's just that this job is very hard," said Roth.

Roth is using some new strategies to more efficiently meet the needs of students. For example, she's created a Facebook page where students can get basic information instead of coming to her office.

Still she says student and family needs go unmet every day.

Luann Porter
School board member Luann Porter says local officials faced with tight budgets often cut counseling positions. She says it's a move that will come back to bite you.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

"I know that there are parents that will call repeatedly, 'By the way, have you met with my child. I need you to meet with my child.' I think those crises are put off until they're bigger and harder to solve and there's more trauma with it," said Roth.

More cases are now being referred to mental health agencies or social services than in the past, according to Roth.

Morris School Board Chairman Kurt Gartland says the board faced a no-win situation. Eliminate counselors or teachers.

"We recognize having more counselors would be beneficial. We also recognize having more teachers would be beneficial, but we can't do both," explained Gartland. "We could have kept more counseling positions and increased class size. We just didn't think that was the best thing."

Research suggests students learn better in smaller classes.

There's less research on counselors, but recent studies found schools with strong counseling programs have higher test scores, higher graduation rates, and fewer disciplinary problems.

University of Massachusetts at Amherst Professor Richard Lapan says counselors raise student achievement when they develop relationships with students.

He says that's difficult when one counselor works with hundreds of students.

"As you go from 250 to 300 to 350 to 400, it just becomes impossible to really be engaged in the kind of ways we know make a difference," said Lapan.

High counselor to student ratios are one concern, but there's another problem Lapan is seeing more often as a he visits schools and talks with counselors.

More counselors are responsible for making copies of student transcripts, being hall monitors, substitute teaching and being in charge of standardized testing.

"Seems to me an incredible waste of a professional's time to be doing that," said Lapan. "As counselors are doing more of those things we're seeing a negative impact of slightly lower test scores, fewer kids enrolling in advanced placement courses."

Lapan says some schools are adding security officers instead of counselors. It appears that's also happened in Minnesota.

Last session, state lawmakers told school districts to earmark $3 per student for counseling services.

But Minnesota School Counselors Association President Shelly Landry says a survey of schools found the money was used for other needs.

"We found that no school district reported using the funds for adding school counselors," said Landry. "Quite a few of the districts reported that funding was put toward school resource officers, security cameras, that kind of thing."