There’s a lot of talk about the need for more education funding at every level, but what does that really mean? What are the impacts of limited funding? How would significant new investments in education have an impact? What are examples of difficult decisions leaders make with stretched resources, and how does that affect students and the community? In our blog series, Expect More Arizona staff connect with key stakeholders across the state to dig a little deeper into the funding issue.
Episode 3 – Janine Menard, Past Chair, Arizona School Counselors Association
Expect More Arizona’s Senior Community Engagement Manager Donna Davis recently sat down with Janine Menard, who served as a counselor in the Isaac School District for 14 years and is the past chair of the Arizona School Counselors Association, to learn more about the critical role school counselors play in Arizona and their impact on student success. Listen to the audio interview or read a summary below.
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF A SCHOOL COUNSELOR?
School counselors are vital members of the education team and create successful students. They help students academically with achievement strategies, learn to manage emotions and apply their interpersonal skills. And then of course, they also help them plan for postsecondary options. School counselors can work in an elementary, middle or high school setting. The qualifications for a school counselor is a minimum of a master’s degree in school counseling, meet the state certifications for a school counselor and then have to fulfill continuing education requirements.
WHAT IS A TYPICAL DAY LIKE FOR YOU?
“The first thing I do when I get into my office is look at my calendar and see what I’m doing that day. A typical day would be include going into classrooms and doing guidance lessons on social emotional learning, compassion, empathy, and understanding differences looking at different perspectives. In middle school classrooms, I’ll conduct sexual harassment training or help students understand the dangers of social media.
I will pull kids individually kids who have made appointments to see me and we will talk about whatever is bothering them on that day. I also run small groups which I call sharing groups where students come and share what is bothering them and then we process it and they see that they’re not alone and that there are other students who maybe are feeling the same thing.
I also do a lot of outside referrals. If I have an individual student who is experiencing trauma anxiety depression, then I will of course contact the parent and with the parents’ permission, I will refer them to an outside agency. We work very closely with Valle del Sol, a nonprofit organization that is housed on our campus, and that is a very seamless transition to go from when the student comes to me contact the parent and then I submit the referral.”
When it comes to school counselors, the news is unfortunately about as bad as it gets. Arizona ranks last in the nation when it comes to counselor-to-student ratio, and we’re really far from the recommended ratio of 250-to-1.
WHAT IMPACT DOES THE COUNSELOR TO STUDENT RATIO HAVE ON STUDENTS?
Students are falling through the cracks and not all students are being serviced. Students who make an appointment, then have to wait a week or two before they can actually sit down with their counselor. Students are coming to school with unaddressed mental health needs, and counselors are often the first line of defense when it comes to prevention and identification to those unmet mental health needs. If a student does come to a school counselor with anxiety or depression, counselors don’t actually provide that therapy. They are trained to recognize and then to refer out for that therapeutic support.
Additionally, teachers have a lot on their plate here in Arizona. We have a huge teacher retention crisis. Teachers are already juggling a lot and when they don’t have a school counselor to defer to when students are having issues, then that’s makes more work for them and less support for the kids.
WHAT IS THE COMMUNITY IMPACT?
“There is also a tremendous community impact. My kindergarten through eighth grade students are currently not receiving college and career awareness, readiness or exploration training. These skills are so important because they become employability skills. We are creating students who don’t know how to manage emotions. They don’t know how to be assertive. They don’t know how to communicate when they’re in the workplace. I hear from business owners and CEO all the time who say they just want a student to show up on time or they just want a student who knows how to communicate and write a proper email.”
As early as kindergarten, school counselors teach those skills and when you don’t have school counselors teaching those skills, it gets lost in the in the in their education journey.
WHAT CHANGES COULD WE EXPECT TO SEE IF ARIZONA PROVIDED SUFFICIENT FUNDING TO CUT THE COUNSELOR TO STUDENT RATIO IN HALF?
“We would have more services for our students. It’s time that schools look to educate the whole child, and a school counselor is at the forefront of that.”
School counselors in Arizona do not have a district contact person the way that a math teacher has a math content specialist or the way that schools have an HR director that staff can go to for questions. Additionally, the Arizona Department of Education currently does not have a team that is dedicated to school counselors to provide professional development and to be the voice of school counselors.
Plus, teachers already have a lot on their plate. There is a huge teacher retention crisis here in Arizona without a school counselor, teachers are dealing with the social emotional issues and the trauma of adverse childhood experiences.
“For example, we just finished testing in my district. So many of my students come to school traumatized. They have rough home lives and they can’t even try to answer correctly on standardized test. Thus, they are not able to put forth their best effort when it comes to their academics and when you don’t have a school counselor who’s there to help those students, then they fall through the cracks.”
WHAT OTHER SUPPORT PROGRAMS OR WRAPAROUND SERVICES DO YOU BELIEVE THE STATE MUST INVEST IN?
“We have Valle del Sol, an outside community resource, housed right on my school campus. So when a student comes to me with trauma, anxiety or depression, then it’s an easy transition to refer them. More schools needs organizations like that on their campuses.”
School counselors are missing the professional development piece. Teachers get training and curriculum, along with mentors. But school counselors are not receiving that kind of training. And if they do get training, it’s only once and then they go back to their schools and are too overwhelmed with their caseloads to implement anything.
There’s that follow-up piece that’s missing that can provided by district office supervisors and/or staff from the Arizona Department of Education who are content specialists. The goal would be to create a chain of command and oversight to make sure things are being done and professional development is being implemented.
WHAT IS YOUR CASELOAD?
“My case load at 1,100 students and I am the only full-time counselor. I am completely overwhelmed with students. I go in the classroom. I provide one-on-one support and I provide group counseling. I also do a lot of mediations when students are having trouble getting along. I sit down with them and help figure out a way to communicate. I also do a lot of teacher-student mediations which work fabulously. There are just so many kids and there’s just one of me and unfortunately, there are students in my school who are falling through the cracks and not being serviced.”
HOW DO YOU PRIORITIZE WHICH STUDENTS GET APPOINTMENTS WITH YOU?
“When I get back to my desk, I will have anywhere between 20 and 30 students who have made an appointment to see me. I have a very strict procedure and policy. Kids can’t just walk into my office and just hang out. When I go through my email, I look for the students I know who have been having trouble – for example, a student who just came back from suspension – and they become a priority. Maybe we have two students who are rumored to fight, so that becomes a priority also.
I have a good student connection and student rapport with my students, so when I see the name of the student in the email, I already know who they are. But then at some point, everything becomes a priority. And then you have to even prioritize that.
For example, I had a student who I was very close to when she was in eighth grade. She played softball, she wanted to be a mechanic, she was in student council. She was a really smart outgoing girl. Then the very beginning of her ninth grade year, she committed suicide. Now, she was a typical student who is well-rounded and so I thought she was doing great. Then this horrible tragic suicide happened. When I went to her funeral, I just sat over her coffin and wept because I felt like I failed her so miserably. My time had been taken up by other students who had such outwardly traumatic behavior, and this this girl who didn’t get a lot of my time was suffering and I didn’t even know about it.”
DO YOU THINK AN INCREASE IN SCHOOL COUNSELORS CAN HELP ADDRESS SCHOOL SAFETY CONCERNS?
“School resource officers have also been in that conversation and I think it’s great to have both. I have worked at schools that have resource officers and I have worked at schools that do not have resource officers. I think to get our ratio more in line with national standards is a fantastic first start first step. It’s not going to solve everything, but we need to get those ratios more in line.
Do not underestimate the power that student rapport has on school safety. I have built relationships with my students that when they are feeling that they’re off, they can come to me and talk to me. I have built relationships with other students who can come to me and say my best friend is posting really weird stuff on Facebook. We had the police go to their house and it was taken care of. So it’s building those relationships with students that they feel like they can trust you with this information.”
When you have teachers who are in and out in and out of classrooms, they are not building that connection and that rapport students need to feel safe and secure. A school can have a cop sitting outside the door, but unless students have a rapport and a connection and they feel safe with that person, it is not going to do anything.
“After the Parkland shooting, my students were really scared. They would be looking around the building saying, ‘Someone can come in that door and they can shoot us couldn’t they, Ms. Menard?’ And I would have to reassure them that they’re safe.
I realized that things are different now. We live in a different time and ever since the Parkland shooting, I make sure to tell my students every day that I love them and care about them and they matter to me. I say that over and over again because they do matter to me and they need to feel like they are connected to their school and that they are loved and safe in their school. And that way when dangers come up and things are said, kids feel secure enough and connected enough to come to me and tell me what is going on. But you’re not going to get that when you don’t have a school counselor on campus and you have teachers who are constantly in and out of their lives.”