Overstretched school counselors would get state relief under new plan

Rosemount High School counselor Chad Terry helps students plan for college, work through emotional crises and pass their classes. Nearly 500 students depend on him.

That's more than 100 students higher than the national average for secondary school counselors.

Terry said he's overstretched and can't give students all the support they need. "I've met with 45 students in the last couple days, when I look back on my calendar."

A proposal to fund grants for new support staff cleared its first legislative hurdle Thursday. The legislation would provide matching state funding to schools for hiring not just licensed guidance counselors, but also psychologists, social workers, nurses, or drug addiction counselors.

Districts would match state funding for the first four years. After that, districts would pay three-quarters of the cost.

Terry told a state Senate education committee the grants could help "close achievement gaps, educate and train students for jobs that are open now and in the future, and continue to work through the complications of an evolving mental health epidemic in our youth."

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Minnesota has one of the nation's worst student-to-counselor ratios. The lack of counselors is particularly noticeable at the elementary school level, where the ratio of 2,885 students per counselor is four times the national average.

Meanwhile, state spending on all student support staff, as a portion of all education spending, has ranked last in the nation since 2004.

Research has shown that non-classroom support can be critical for keeping struggling students on track.

Senate bill sponsor Susan Kent said creating a stronger foundation of support will benefit all students, not just those in need of help.

"Having the trained professionals available to help [students] get the support that they need for whatever issue they're dealing with is huge," she said, "not just for that student but for all those students in the classroom whose teachers are being distracted from teaching math and reading."

The Woodbury Democrat said her plan is designed as a short-term incentive. She hopes when the grants end, schools would make the positions permanent.

Osseo schools superintendent Kate Maguire said the proposal doesn't give her enough flexibility because it requires funded support staff to be licensed. Maguire says the ranks of licensed support staff aren't diverse enough.

"Serving 52 percent students of color [with] 95 percent white staff members, I need to be able to have the flexibility to hire other kinds of staff members who provide other kinds of support for students and teachers in the classroom," Maguire said.

Maguire says Osseo has hired community members of color who don't hold licenses.

"They're not trained as counselors, and they're not trained as social workers, and they're not licensed nurses," she said. "They do, however, reflect the racial demographics of the students we serve."

Though Kent's bill wouldn't provide grants for such positions, it wouldn't prevent districts from hiring non-licensed staff for them. But Kent said the key support positions are too important not to require licenses.

"These are life and death matters," Kent said. These are students who are struggling with a number of issues, and these are true basic needs."

Kent has scaled back her proposal from a similar one she offered last year. Instead of $95 million, she's seeking $20 million to fund about 200 support staff positions.