Oklahoma schools desperately need more school counselors. Oklahoma has 435 students for every counselor, nearly double the recommended ratio of 250 students per counselor. To help address this problem, the State Department of Education has asked the Legislature for $58 million dollars to fund a School Counselor Corps, which would allow districts to hire additional school counselors and licensed therapists. Both types of professionals are critical. Children in Oklahoma experience trauma at higher rates than their peers in most other states. This trauma can lead to academic struggles along with a host of negative mental and physical health outcomes. Providing students proper supports is the key to counteracting these realities.
While Governor Stitt’s budget proposal included a $1,200 teacher pay raise, it did not add additional state aid dollars and does little to address the real needs facing schools. This session the legislature should grant the State Department of Education’s request for the $58 million dollar line item. Oklahoma educators have been stripped of their ability to effectively meet students’ academic, social and emotional needs, and without more counselors, it is unlikely Oklahoma schools will make their way to a Top Ten ranking.
School counselors get students to and through school
School counselors are tasked with supporting three core areas of student success: meeting academic goals, career and college planning, and managing social and emotional wellness. In Oklahoma, school counselors are certified staff, and their salary schedule is the same as a teacher. However, unlike teachers, school counselors are required to hold a master’s degree in school counseling or a related field, in addition to passing a series of Oklahoma state certification exams. While some school counselors are also licensed professional counselors (LPCs), the two titles are distinct. Licensed professional counselors are trained to provide clinical therapy for more substantial mental health needs. While all schools are required to have access to a school counselor, not all schools are required to have an LPC. Rather than hire their own LPC, many districts contract with mental health agencies to offer students therapy in school.
Addressing students’ academic needs goes beyond scheduling course loads and ensuring they have sufficient credit hours. Kristin Atchley, the Director of School Counseling at the State Department of Education, explains that developing relationships with students is paramount. Learning about students’ interests and passions can help counselors develop plans to keep students who need help stay motivated and ultimately cross the stage on graduation day. School counselors are also a key line of defense when social or emotional issues with students or their families threaten these plans. While sometimes school counselors can address these needs, they often refer students to an LPC, and follow up with students to be sure they are getting the help they need.
School counselors are crucial in Oklahoma where children experience high rates of trauma
Students in Oklahoma experience some of the highest rates of adverse childhood experiences in the nation, and these traumas can make it difficult for children to succeed in the classroom. Oklahoma school counselors address this reality by bringing research about childhood trauma to educators and training schools to use trauma-informed practices. This training helps teachers and staff more effectively address student behaviors, and ultimately, improve academic outcomes.
School counselors can also help students overcome barriers by keeping them on the right academic track and ensuring they receive the supports they need. To help strengthen this role, the Legislature passed HB 2911 in 2017, which created the Individual Career and Academic Plan (ICAP), and mandates that counselors develop a plan for every student beginning next school year. HB 2911 is good legislation for our students, but without more funding, it’s unclear if school counselors will be able to meet these goals, given an average caseload of 435 students per counselor.
Oklahoma needs more school counselors
The $58 million that the State Department of Education has requested for the School Counselor Corps would help lower Oklahoma’s current ratio of 435 students for every 1 counselor to the recommended 250 to 1.
The $58 million that the State Department of Education has requested for the School Counselor Corps would help lower Oklahoma’s current ratio of 435 students for every 1 counselor to the recommended 250 to 1. This would give counselors adequate time to meet with all their students, and provide teachers the professional support they need. Unfortunately, Kristin Atchley with the State Department of Education says that in many schools, students may not even know who their school counselor is because student caseloads are so high. Serving 300 to 400 students often means that counselors have to prioritize responding to students in immediate crisis or scheduling meetings with students who request the help. This leaves many students falling through the cracks. These include students who are struggling but don’t know how to ask for help or first-generation students grappling with the college admissions process. Additionally, counselors are often tasked with administrative duties including test coordination, which takes away from time to meet with students.
Still further, funding the School Counselor Corps could help retain teachers. Ideally, teachers and school counselors can work together to help a struggling student, but when counselors are overburdened, teachers must take on these responsibilities themselves, adding to teachers’ already significant workloads. Hiring additional school counselors could be a way to address the deteriorating work conditions that 80 percent of Oklahoma teachers cite as a significant factor in their decision to leave the classroom.
Tell Legislators to fund the $58 million School Counselor Corps this session
For the first time in nearly a decade, the Legislature has growth revenue that would make it possible to fund the School Counselor Corps. This would be an incredible win for our schools. Given a manageable caseload, school counselors along with LPCs are a crucial safety net for students. Unaddressed mental health issues are often at the root of poor student behavior and academic performance. When schools do not have enough professionals to help, students are left floundering, teachers burn out, and our schools will never reach their Top Ten potential. Legislators must be reminded how important this funding is for our schools, and now is the right time to tell them.
OKPolicy intern Lily DeFrank provided research assistance for this piece.