Gov. Sam Brownback wants to add hundreds of new school counselors to public schools in Kansas over the next five years, if they can be found.
That would require a dramatic reversal in a state that’s seen a slight decline in school counselors over the past decade and that may be losing its capacity to train more.
Brownback’s five-year goal aims to increase the number of school counselors and psychologists in the state by 150 each year for five years, or adding 750 by 2023. According to data from the Kansas State Department of Education, the number of counselors has been nearly flat for years.
There are signs that schools are interested in hiring more counselors. A survey conducted by Kansas State Department of Education showed local districts wanted to add more counselors and looked at the expectation of more school spending -- the likely outcome of a Kansas Supreme Court order -- to pay for them.
But to hit that 150-a-year number, Kansas will need to train many more counselors.
“It is quite a few, right?” said Debbie Mercer, the dean of the Kansas State University’s College of Education. “Preparation programs would really need to ramp up and I think that they’re ready to mobilize."
To pump more money into school districts, the state legislature is discussing sending less funding to college campuses -- and ultimately to counselor education programs.
Not being able to hire more professors — or losing some to cuts — would limit the number of students gearing up for counseling careers.
“If more funding cuts would happen, that’s where it would be detrimental,” said Judith Hughey, an associate professor at KSU’s department of special education, counseling and student affairs.
An increase in school counselors would also help KSDE meet its goal of improving students’ mental health and social skills. An NPR series on mental health highlights a mental health crisis affecting students and found that while about 20 percent of children in the United States show signs of a mental health disorder nearly 80 percent of those won’t receive the mental health services they need.
“If [students are] worried about being bullied, if they’re worried about not having any friends or feeling so insecure or insignificant in who they are as a person, they’re not going to care much about multiplication factors or state capitals,” said Hughey.
The issue can hit Kansas’ rural areas especially hard where school counselors are sometimes the only person available to help with mental health issues.
That problem is exasperated by school counselors being overworked. The American School Counselor Association and the American Counseling Association recommends a ratio of 250 students to one counselor. Counselors in Kansas have a better ratio than the national average, but still carry twice the recommended workload. Education experts say being responsible for so many students means counselor often can’t provide valuable one-on-one time or work in smaller, more effective group sizes.
“Can you do it? Yeah. I was a high school counselor with 500 kids,” said Lynn Linde with the American Counseling Association. "Could I do what I wanted to? Absolutely not."
Linde said the numbers are even worse for elementary and middle schools. One study found that adding one more school counselor to elementary schools improves test scores and significantly lowers reports of disruptive behavior.
“To me, elementary counselors in particular are magical,” said Linde. “And that’s how kids look at them because it’s just this person who is all about helping them."
Additional school counselors could help with another of KSDE and Brownback’s goals — a higher graduation rate. Linde says more school counselors in elementary and middle school have a strong impact on whether or not those students graduate later in life.
“When you intervene with kids it increases your graduation rates when you start early,” says Linde. “Kids pretty much make the decision in middle school — whether they’re going to go to college, whether they’re going to drop out of a school. It’s not something that suddenly happens."
For more details of the Kansas News Service analysis, click here.
Stephan Bisaha, based at KMUW in Wichita, is an education reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.