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Schools: Guidance falling off course

While public school enrollment rises, the number of guidance counselors ebbs, leaving some students stranded.

By Donna Winchester
Published October 28, 2006

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]

The line begins forming at most high school guidance offices just after morning announcements.

On a recent Monday at Seminole High in Pinellas County, the procession included a boy searching for scholarship information, a girl who wanted to add an anatomy class to her schedule and a senior who learned she may not graduate this year after all.

By noon, Hal Traver had checked course credits on a dozen students. He also had placated an angry parent and persuaded a 17-year-old to apologize to a teacher.

Watching Traver work, it was easy to see why many guidance counselors these days have little time to help students navigate the thicket of college choices.

They aren't even officially called guidance counselors anymore.

"We call them school counselors now," said Richard Wong, executive director of the American School Counselor Association. "They're responsible for what we call the three domains: academic achievement, personal and social development, and college and career planning."

But as the responsibilities of school counselors have increased, their numbers have not. While the American School Counselor Association recommends no more than 250 students per counselor, the ratio in Florida is closer to 500 to 1.

Burdened with everything from bullying and teen pregnancies to keeping track of FCAT booklets, educators say many college-bound students are being left out in the cold.

"If you're from a family where no one has been to college, a lot of times you don't know there are steps," said Wendy Johns, manager of the Illinois College Access Network. "Knowing there are many steps, and that the steps are complicated, is a huge piece of college access."

Even a counselor as conscientious as Traver can drop the ball. On the same day he met with the angry parent and the girl who had fought with her teacher, a 17-year-old senior told him he wants to go to the University of Florida next fall to major in engineering.

The problem: The student has yet to take the SAT, fill out a college application or draft his essay.

"He can apply," said Albert Matheny, director of the academic advising center at UF. "But he's not going to get in."

* * *

Carla Baldwin, K-12 guidance supervisor for Pinellas County schools, compares a school counselor's office to a "one-stop inn."

Elementary school counselors work primarily on character education, self-esteem and conflict resolution, Baldwin said. Middle school counselors assist with career identification and options, a role she says will expand now that Florida lawmakers are requiring students to choose "major" areas of study before they enter ninth grade.

High school counselors must make sure students have completed all the requirements for graduation. That includes coordinating standardized tests, Baldwin said.

She estimates that counselors spend 40 percent of their time on paperwork, much of it FCAT-related.

"Counselors could be spending that time with students who need it," Baldwin said. "They could be working with teachers or parents."

But because of their work load, many aren't. Only one-quarter of the secondary school counselors surveyed by the National Center for Education Statistics said helping students plan for college was their most emphasized goal.

Some parents think their college-bound children need more attention, and are spending as much as $150 an hour to get it.

Jay Kelley of Safety Harbor hired a private college counselor when his daughter Mary was a senior at St. Petersburg Catholic High School. While the guidance she was getting at her school was adequate, Kelley said, it was "somewhat one size fits all."

A year after following the private counselor's suggestions, Kelley says the investment was worth it.

"The counselor was able to lower the stress level even at our first meeting," he said. "Now Mary is attending the University of Tampa on a partial scholarship."

* * *

School counselors realize that some students need more help than others. Patricia Brewer, a teacher and school counselor for more than 20 years, said she is still amazed by the differences she sees among students.

"Some kids don't have a clear idea of what the SAT is until you tell them," said Brewer, a counselor at Boca Ceiga High in Gulfport. "Other kids want help manipulating their courses so they can be No. 1 in their class."

Faced with the daunting task of serving hundreds of students - all those whose last names begin with R through Z - Brewer has given up on the idea of getting each to come to her office. Instead, she spends as much time as possible going from classroom to classroom so the kids will get to know her.

To ease counselors' work loads, the Hillsborough school district hires guidance resource specialists who assist with financial aid and college admission applications. That gives counselors more time to work with students on other issues, said Pat Smith, director of guidance services for Hillsborough schools.

It also means students have a better shot at working closely with someone who can help them navigate the college scholarship and application process. But as in Pinellas, some Hillsborough parents still opt for the services of private college counselors.

Pam and Scott Lapimer hired former guidance resource specialist Margaret Gandy two years ago when their daughter Leigh was a sophomore at Hillsborough High. Now a senior, Leigh is waiting for acceptance letters from seven universities, including a handful of Ivy League schools.

"It's not as easy as it used to be, when you just sent in your application," Pam Lapimer said. "It's helpful to be ahead of the game."

Unfortunately, educators say, insufficient planning can be especially detrimental to students who need extra help qualifying for college. Parents of such students often know little about the college admissions process.

"If we had a student who was weak in math but had a strong record overall we might have said, 'We'll take this person and work on his math skills,' " said John Barnhill, director of admissions at Florida State University. "Now we're saying, 'We don't want to be in the remediation business.' "

* * *

Madelyn Isaacs, president of the Florida School Counselor Association, worries that the high ratio of students to counselors could become even larger in coming years.

The number of school counselors in Florida, a job that requires a master's degree, declined 6.2 percent from 2004 to 2005. And while they make an average of $48,455 a year - about $3,000 more than the average teacher with a master's degree - many educators are moving toward administration because it's viewed as more prestigious, Isaacs said.

The Florida Department of Education seems unaware of what some consider a near crisis. Its contribution to guidance counseling is a Web site where students can get information on career planning, financial aid and college admissions.

Brewer, the Boca Ciega High counselor, said she and her colleagues need help.

"If I could make a change in the guidance counseling world, it would be to have more of us," she said. "Bottom line, every kid needs something from a guidance counselor, whether it's just a pat on the back or something a whole lot bigger."

[Last modified October 28, 2006, 05:38:17]

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