Arizona has the worst school counselor to student ratio in the US, at 903 kids per counselor. In Northern Arizona, that ratio is slightly higher, and the majority of districts don’t have a single counselor on staff. KNAU’s Zac Ziegler reports on what the presence and absence of counselors means for students and staff.
All you have to do is take a look at the stacks of papers on Shelley Kitchen’s desk to know how busy she is.
“I've kind of got things like laid out, and I'm just tackling them one pile at a time.”
Kitchen is a counselor at Cottonwood’s Mingus Union High School, and those piles cover everything: transcripts, summer school courses, college visits for seniors.
"Hopefully I can get at least half of that done today,” she says with a laugh.
Amanda Lange is also a counselor at Mingus, and her day is just as packed, just as varied.
“It sure runs the gamut. There's schedules, testing duties.”
And time for what Lange says is the best part of the job, talking with students.
“I want to get to know what's happening in their life, and I want to be that trusted adult for them.”
And that means dealing with plenty of issues that aren’t planned for.
Today alone, Mingus’ counselors will mediate disagreements, help a student after a fender bender, even counsel a teen having suicidal thoughts.
In the most recent federal data, Mingus High had a student-to-counselor ratio right around what the American School Counselors Association recommends, 250 students each.
The most-recent federal data shows only four out of Northern Arizona’s 121 districts meet that guideline.
And almost 70% of those districts have no counselors at all.
Travis Udall is Superintendent of Round Valley Unified School District in Apache County.
During the Great Recession, counselors were among the positions eliminated.
“We had to cut nearly $4 million out of a $13 million budget.”
The district was forced to go outside its walls to help students with the most serious mental health issues, working with counselors in Springerville.
“We started forming partnerships with our local community counseling center and local religious denominations that could help us.”
After almost a decade without counselors, Round Valley was finally able to hire two. Udall says it’s made a noticeable difference.
“We saw a decrease in emotional outbursts. We saw a decrease in disciplinary issues among certain students.”
Stefan Swiat is a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Education. He says there are plenty of districts with stories like Round Valley Unified’s, and having to go without a counselor is asking for problems.
“Zero counselors is just unacceptable. There's going to be students with social, emotional, vocational and academic needs.”
Swiat says the only way the issue is likely to be fixed is for the state legislature to increase education spending.
Arizona’s latest budget allocates money to add 224 counselors statewide.
“It'll be up to the people to raise these concerns with their local legislators and say, ‘Listen, we need to continue to go down this path.’ We have a billion dollar surplus in this state right now and we have a good economic forecast, so the time is now to invest in education.”
Without a notable increase in funds from the state, Swiat says, Arizona is likely to remain where it’s been for years, the worst ratio of students to counselors in the country.