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SPECIAL REPORT: Is There a School Counselor Shortage in Wisconsin?

The evolving role of school counselors.

Everyone knows school counselors help with academics, but today they are responsible for so much more. The profession has changed to address issues like bullying, peer pressure, poverty and school violence. To reflect a new and ever-evolving role, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) changed the title from “guidance counselor” to “school counselor” in 1990.

According to the Wisconsin School Counselor Association (WSCA), the job provides support in three areas: academics, careers and social/emotional.

“That’s a critical component. You can’t ignore that and focus just on academic and careers. That’s an area where a lot of counselors seek professional development,” said Stacy Eslick, the Executive Director of WSCA.

“As we kind of better understood what students need to be successful in education, our role has evolved.”

That’s apparent to students like high school senior Sammy Gryszkiewicz, who struggles with anxiety. Her counselor played a critical role in addressing and coping with it in the classroom.

“She’s helped me so much through school that it’s incredible,” said Gryszkiewicz.

“They taught me techniques, like coping techniques and breathing techniques. So, when I have anxiety attacks I know how to breathe and calm down.”

Sophomore student Brandon Szpot found similar support from his counselor.

“Your counselor’s job is to get you ready for the world. They get you ready to tackle big issues and figure out what you’re going to do after high school,” said Szpot, who already knows he wants to specialize in microbiology after high school. He discovered his passion during a unit on the subject.

Szpot looked to his counselor for support when he was unhappy in traditional classes. His counselor helped him completely revamp his schedule to instead take part in a special learning program offered at Arrowhead High School.

“I probably wouldn’t be as hopeful about the future right now if I hadn’t been able to talk to somebody,” said Szpot.

Is there a counselor shortage?

There are 1,900 school counselors in Wisconsin. Eslick says that’s a number she’d like to see increase. The ASCA recommends 250 students per counselor. According to Eslick, the statewide average in Wisconsin is 450 to 1.

At local districts, like Arrowhead High School, the counselor-to-student ratio is below the statewide average, but above the recommended student caseload at 370 students per counselor. In the neighboring Waukesha district, counselors have student caseloads around 400.

“An additional counselor would be really helpful,” said Jill Werner, a counselor at Waukesha North High School.

Werner has been in education for 15 years and has seen the shift in responsibilities first-hand.

“It’s a far cry from what it used to be,” said Werner. “I hear a lot from parents who say, ‘I didn’t even know my school counselor.’ We both laugh because I didn’t know mine either. But, it’s so different now. Every student knows who we are.”

As schools continue to adapt to the changes in education, some districts have been able to hire additional staff. For instance, both Arrowhead and Waukesha high schools have psychologists on staff. In Waukesha, there is also a social worker on campus.

“Our counselors do a great job of meeting the kids’ needs on a day-to-day basis, making sure that schedules are set and in place, making sure kids are prepared to go onto college,” said Joe Koch, Assistant Superintendent for the Waukesha School District.

Psychologists are really working with the social and emotional needs of our students. In addition to that, they have their responsibilities with special education, making sure evaluations are conducted. Our social workers do a fine job of providing services to students in the school. But, [they] also reach out for additional county support, and make sure there’s a bridge.”

School counselors need a Master's degree from an accredited University, but options in Wisconsin are becoming more limited. The University of Wisconsin- Madison closed its K-12 Master's Counseling program in 2013. UW-Platteville will close its education track this year. Yet demand for skilled counselors is only increasing as student needs change.

Hope is on the Horizon.

Over the years, counselors have taken on a new role. As schools work to find  new ways to approach challenges, a solution is on the horizon. By the 2017-18 school year, all Wisconsin schools have to implement “Academic and Career Planning” (ACP). The comprehensive program holds students accountable for their plan after high school, but the entire school is involved. Counselors support students with intentional course planning and teachers encourage students to ask questions and explore new opportunities, like internships and apprenticeships, outside the classroom.

Arrowhead High School is a pilot school for ACP. That means counselors there will be a resource to other schools working to implement the program.

“The goal is more engaged in their work,” said Brianne Mehlos, a counselor at Arrowhead.

“It’s going to help [students] to really look more at their meta-cognitive skills. Planning and preparation, being able to reflect and evaluate what are my strengths, what are my weaknesses based on that intentional course planning,” said Mehlos.

The program is designed to help every student as part of a "whole student" approach. According to the program description, with the help of multiple educators, students can personalize their education, so it better aligns with his or her individual sense of purpose. 

To learn more about ACP, click here.

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