Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

October 5, 2013

Taylor High School officials report crisis in counseling of teenagers

Local counselors say tight budgets have stretched them thin.

By Lindsey Ziliak Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Taylor High School’s lone guidance counselor spent her Thursday helping teens at the school solve problems and prepare for their futures.

“I talked to some kids about personal issues getting in the way of them concentrating in class,” Heather Baltz said.

She helped one student fill out a college application. She helped another create a graduation plan.

Friday she visited Chrysler to try to set up an advanced manufacturing internship for her students.

Soon she will have to get ready for the PSATs that she administers. Then it will be time for the holidays and time for her to organize a canned food drive so the district’s pantry doesn’t run dry for families in need.

“There’s never a down time,” she said. “But it’s OK. Once you see a difference you make in a kid’s life … that’s what you do it for.”

Others are saying it’s not OK. They say the state’s school guidance counselors need some help.

According to the Indiana Youth Institute, the state’s students-to-counselor ratio is one of the worst in the country.

The average school counselor in Indiana serves 539 students — the eighth worst ratio in America.

Those statistics don’t even surprise Baltz.

“I believe it,” she said. “It’s kind of ridiculous.”

And those few counselors are being stretched thin.

According to College Board, counselors also are assigned additional duties such as administrative paper work, the coordination of testing and other clerical tasks that “pull counselors from the college and career-going activities they are uniquely suited to provide their students.”

This lack of personal attention has consequences, Indiana Youth Institute CEO Bill Stanczykiewicz said. In a research review conducted for the state’s new Indiana Career Council, the Indiana Business Research Center reported, “K-12 students receive little career guidance, so they’re unsure which courses and programs to pursue.”

Baltz admitted it would be nice to have an additional counselor at the school.

She serves 400 students there, which would be an improvement on the state’s ratio if she didn’t also have to pick up duties at Taylor Middle School.

The middle school counselor retired a few years ago, and there wasn’t enough money in the budget to replace her, Baltz said.

“With budgets and money, it’s become much tighter,” she said.

Baltz knows she is far from reaching the perfect students to counselor ratio. The magic number is 250:1, she said.

She’s not alone, though.

Kokomo High School has five counselors to serve 2,000 students, said Dave Barnes, director of communications for Kokomo School Corp. That means each counselor is responsible for roughly 400 teens.

Maple Crest Middle School has one counselor for its 600 students. Bon Air Middle School almost hits that magic number. It has one counselor for its 270 students.

When the numbers go up, prioritizing becomes important. That’s something Baltz and the counselors in Kokomo Schools agreed on.

Baltz does whatever she can to increase face time with students. That’s how she’s going to make the biggest difference, she said.

That means her secretary helps her with some of the administrative tasks. A registrar helps her deal with transcripts and credit hours. And often teachers step up to help her work with students. School groups have volunteered to help her run the district’s food pantry. In times of crisis, community groups step in as well, she said.

Baltz was recently called to Taylor Middle School to offer support following a student death. A parent, who is also a psychologist, came to help out. The middle school youth pastor at Crossroads Community Church was also on hand to work with kids.

To Kokomo High School counselor Mike Susong, there’s nothing more important than establishing connections with students.

“That’s why I do this job,” he said. “I want to help them with their lives. We want to be their crutch, someone they can lean on.”

He will always drop what he’s doing to help a student in need.

But those administrative tasks don’t just disappear. Instead, counselors are often in their offices long after the school day ends. They’re planning college events and writing grants to offer incentives to students who take Advance Placement college courses.

“It means a lot of extra work,” Susong said. “Does it become frustrating sometimes? Well, that’s the nature of the beast.”

Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at lindsey.ziliak@kokomotribune.com.