Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

September 12, 2013

MARK HEINIG: How can we help our high school counselors?

Collaborate with parents, health officials

Kokomo Tribune

---- — ASept. 5 column in the Koko-mo Tribune by Bill Stan-czykiewicz discusses the “high school counseling crisis in Indiana.” I agree with Mr. Stan-czykiewicz. We certainly do have a high school counseling crisis, but that is only one component of a much older and far-reaching crisis: school funding and staffing. His main idea is that our public high schools don’t have enough qualified counselors, and we don’t use those whom we have wisely.

He is correct on both points. I taught at and directed both public and Catholic high schools at various times during my career. We need more counselors in all Indiana high schools, public and nonpublic. If our high schools now have about 539 students per counselor, the ratio is even worse than I thought. Each counselor used to have a caseload of about 250 to 300 students. Ideally, high school counselors should be free to focus entirely on the students’ academic needs, college readiness and career counseling.

If that’s happening anywhere in Indiana, I’m not aware of it. High school counselors are vulnerable. They are the only faculty members except administrators who don’t have classes to teach. Principals often give them responsibilities that have nothing to do with school counseling. I was just as guilty as other principals.

If there is a high school principal anyplace who isn’t forced to delegate administrative tasks to counselors, that place is not in Indiana! Here, principals have no realistic alternative. The demands on the principal’s time are growing so fast even those with one or more assistant principals often can’t keep up. Changing state and federal regulations have caused much of this, but not all of it.

So the workloads of school counselors keep growing, but their day is still just 24 hours long, just like the principal’s and everybody else’s. High school principals and counselors face similar frustrating dilemmas. If I hired another counselor, I had less money to pay teachers. Less money meant laying off teachers or not replacing teachers who resigned or retired.

Fewer teachers mean bigger classes. Kids learn less in bigger classes. They can’t use what they didn’t learn to raise standardized test scores. If test scores go down, enrollments and funding also decline. Guess what that means for next year’s test scores! That’s why I left the principal’s office and returned to the classroom. That’s also why counselors stop counseling and resume teaching.

The greatest weakness of high school counseling in Indiana isn’t educational counseling. It’s personal counseling. We expect our school counselors to do it, but we don’t teach them how to do it well. Some Hoosier universities offer a master’s degree in school counseling, but people with that degree don’t go into private practice as therapists. You need a different kind of master’s degree for that.

However, there is a need in high schools for qualified people to help students deal with many emotional and psychological problems. School counselors, often called guidance counselors, lack the training and experience needed to help troubled teenagers. Unfortunately, guidance counselors often have no alternative. If personal problems affect a teen’s school work, mental health or well-being, and referral to a therapist isn’t possible, the guidance counselor tries to help.

The troubles of many adolescents are way beyond the ability of the principal or the guidance counselor to help. In my second principal’s job, I found myself in a small, rural school corporation that had recently experienced three adolescent suicides. Fortunately, the school board had the wisdom to seek well-qualified outside help and worry about paying for it later! Tragically, there is no foolproof way to prevent teens from attempting suicide. However, that school corporation did succeed in creating a program to help severely troubled kids. There have been no subsequent adolescent suicide attempts.

So what can we do about the high school counseling crisis that worries Mr. Stanczykiewicz and should worry all of us? Until we can employ more well-qualified high school counselors and therapists, closer collaboration with parents, health care resources, local government, churches and other community organizations is crucial. That’s a good place to begin, but it won’t reach all troubled adolescents. Nothing ever will, but even if we only help one kid at a time, that’s something. Winning many little battles may be just as good as winning a single big one!

Mark Heinig Jr. of Kokomo is a retired Indiana principal and teacher. Contact him at markjr1708@gmail.com.