With Hundreds Of Students, School Counselors Just Try To 'Stay Afloat' : NPR Ed School counselors work with students on mental health each day — but with support, they say, they could do more.
NPR logo With Hundreds Of Students, School Counselors Just Try To 'Stay Afloat'

With Hundreds Of Students, School Counselors Just Try To 'Stay Afloat'

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Counselor helping student draw her future.
LA Johnson/NPR

Yuridia Nava, a counselor at Riverside Polytechnic High School in Riverside, Calif., has been getting to work at 7 a.m. lately. It's class registration time, so she wants to be available before school for parents and students to come in with questions as they plan for the next year of courses, SAT tests, and college preparation.

Poly — as her school is known — employs six counselors for its 2,700 students, so Nava and her colleagues each work with about 500 teens. That's just above average. According to the most recent data, school counselors across the country manage caseloads of about 482 students each. In California, where Nava works, that average ratio is 760 students per counselor — the second highest in the nation. She says counselors there are just trying to "stay afloat" and get through each day. The American School Counselor Association recommends that counselors work with 250 students each, but just three states follow that advice.

Each time a school shooting occurs, the nation collectively asks: who is responsible for students' safety? Is it teachers? Parents? Lawmakers?

Some suggest that school counselors, who work with students on academic and personal levels, play a part. But those folks are often stretched too thin — and lack resources like money, support, and time.

And time is one thing that counselor Yuridia Nava doesn't have a lot of.

One day earlier this week began with a parent meeting. Nava spent the next three periods with students—reviewing their goals, talking about their interests, and discussing the classes that they need for next year. She'll be meeting with students for registration all month.

After Nava advised students interested in going to the police academy, she visited a teacher who recently lost a loved one. Back at her office, the counselor checked with students involved in a school leadership program, met with two more students about their weekends, and sat down with a family registering their teen at Poly for the first time.

One student, who checks in with Nava daily, dropped by her office. Another came by to tell Nava she'd been feeling unsafe at home. After Poly's thousands of students headed home, Nava sat down for another parent meeting, then met with staff members to go over safety measures at school.

All of that happened before 4 p.m.

But even Nava, a finalist for the American School Counselor Association's School Counselor of the Year award in 2017, says that she and other counselors could do even more.

"Our caseloads put such a hindrance on what we're capable of doing," she says.

School counselors like her work with school nurses, school psychologists, and school social workers to make sure that students struggling in and out of school get the help that they need. But all of these staff work with huge caseloads. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, school psychologists work with about 1,400 students each across the country.

Though the national conversation often turns to mental health after mass shootings, school counselors and other support personnel work with students on their mental health every day. And, for some, the temporary focus on mental health is frustrating when their own roles in schools are so underfunded.

To them, it's especially important to get the facts correct: "There are statistics that show that people who have diagnosed mental illnesses are not more likely to commit these mass shootings. That's factual," says Jill Cook, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association. According to a statement from the National Association of School Psychologists released last week, "To conclude that the presence of an issue like depression predisposes someone to commit this type of violence perpetuates an incorrect stereotype and maintains a stigma that often creates a reluctance to seek treatment."

Nava's role includes helping her students seek this treatment for any mental health concerns. If students need long-term interventions, she'll refer them to outside sources, like therapists or psychologists. School shootings make big headlines — and amplify the attention on student mental health — yet two–thirds of all gun deaths result from suicide.

Spending face–to–face time building relationships with students is key to establishing a healthy school environment, where kids feel comfortable coming to counselors with their worries—whether they're about school safety, happiness, or day–to–day classroom concerns.

That's a challenge for counselors with so many kids to look after — and so much on their schedules each day.

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