Gov. Sam Brownback wants to add hundreds of new counselors to public schools in Kansas over the next five years, if those counselors can be found.
That would require a dramatic reversal in a state that has 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, 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 the Kansas State Department of Education showed local districts wanted to add more counselors and looked at the expectation of more school funding -- 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 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 K-State’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 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 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,” Hughey said.
The issue can hit especially hard in Kansas’ rural areas, where school counselors are sometimes the only people available to help with mental health issues.
That problem is compounded by school counselors being overworked. The American School Counselor Association and the American Counseling Association recommend a ratio of 250 students to one counselor. Kansas' ratio is better than the national average, but counselors still carry twice the recommended workload. Education experts say being responsible for so many students means counselors 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,” Linde said. “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 schools 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,” Linde said. “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 about the Kansas News Service’s analysis, click here.
Stephan Bisaha is an education reporter for KMUW’s 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.