‘More time to do our jobs’: Indiana lawmakers advance bill to lighten load on school counselors

Discussions are still ongoing, though, over how much dedicated time counselors should have to work with students.

By: - February 1, 2024 6:30 am

Lawmakers are trying to aid school counselors after the American School Counselor Association recently reported that Indiana has a student-to-counselor ratio of 694 to 1 — well above the national average and currently the highest in the country. (Getty Images)

Hoosier lawmakers want to guarantee school counselors have more time to provide services for students that are increasingly in demand while spending less time filling in elsewhere, like as substitute teachers or on lunch and recess duty.

Senate Bill 141 is headed to the full chamber after the Senate education committee voted unanimously in its favor on Wednesday. Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, who authored the bill, said it’s part of a push to combat Indiana’s school counselor “crisis.”

“I do think it’s an important bill because we have been putting off addressing the whole counselor issue … this is a non-budget year, but this might be at least a way to give you some relief,” Leising said. “The most important part for me is that our counselors are doing what we all thought counselors did — whether that’s emotional counseling when kids have issues, or career counseling. … I hope that this will entice and interest our schools into really looking at what our counselors are doing.”

Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg. (Photo from Indiana Senate Republicans)

The American School Counselor Association recently reported that Indiana has a student-to-counselor ratio of 694 to 1 — well above the national average and currently the highest in the country.

As of 2023, schools employed just 1,494 counselors statewide for more than 1 million students.

With the needs of Hoosiers students growing more demanding, Indiana school counselors say they’re experiencing their own crisis.

“We have a major problem in Indiana,” said Scott Carr, speaking on behalf of the Indiana School Counselor Association (ISCA). We believe Senate Bill 141 is a tremendous step forward to help counselors today. It will allow counselors to spend more of their time on counseling-related activities, as opposed to non-counseling related activities, across the state. … And it will also, hopefully, nudge some districts — where ratios are much, much more severe — to maybe try to find solutions internally to drive those ratios down.”

More time for counseling

The latest draft of Leising’s bill requires that for the 2024-2025 academic year, schools must ensure that at least 60% of a school counselor’s aggregate time on the clock is devoted to providing direct services to students. That increases to 85% beginning with the 2025-2026 school year.

Schools that have a ratio of fewer than 350 students per school counselor are exempt from the time requirement provisions, however.

Kendyl Weise, a school counselor and chair of the state association’s advocacy committee, told lawmakers that counselors in elementary schools are often forced to take on supervisory roles outside the scope of their normal duties. At the secondary level, counselors are frequently tasked with overseeing assessments, such as Advanced Placement exams.

A ‘crisis’ of their own: Indiana school counselors detail overwhelming duties, pushing some out

“For example, I was an assessment coordinator. I was the one who was in charge of all the assessments at the secondary level. I planned, I trained teachers, I put schedules together, I figured out rooms, I figured out proctors, I administered, I cleaned up after the test, I shipped materials back,” Weise said. “There was a lot of legwork, and probably, if I had to estimate, that was a good month to five weeks of my time was spent just planning for that test.”

But when bogged down with those other duties, school counselors aren’t able to actually counsel students, Weise said. And that’s especially concerning, she continued, “given the mental health needs of our students.”

The ASCA divides school counselors’ roles into three domains: applying academic achievement strategies, managing emotions and applying interpersonal skills, and planning for postsecondary options.

The national association makes it clear that appropriate duties for school counselors include:

  • academic planning advisement
  • providing short-term counseling to students
  • overseeing new student orientation
  • interpreting student records and cognitive/aptitude/achievement tests
  • consulting with teachers and school principals, including to resolve student issues

But they should not be expected to provide long-term counseling to address psychological disorders, cover classes for teachers, supervise classrooms or common areas, or keep clerical records, among other tasks.

According to the latest annual Indiana School Counselor Survey released in November, Hoosier counselors reported spending 10 days per school year on proctoring or supervising testing. More time was spent on other non-counseling duties.

“We all know that we have mandated a lot of testing, but perhaps that mentoring or proctoring could be done more by a clerical person or someone of a lower salary, rather than a counselor,” Leising said.

More work needed?

Still, Robert Taylor, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, pleaded with legislators to allow schools to retain some flexibility to stretch staff.

“No question, counselors are overworked. No question, teachers are overworked. No question. School employees in general are putting in time, hours and talent sometimes outside of their expertise — many times outside of their contract hours,” Taylor said. “But by limiting the utilization of school counselors, we’re limiting the flexibility and availability of a trained, committed educational professional to deal with some of the many aspects of school.”

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23-24 IN SC Survey Results Narrative 11032023

 

Taylor pointed to superintendents who drive school buses, principals who clean restrooms, and teachers who provide supervision outside instruction “on a daily basis.”

He said, too, there are benefits to counselors assisting students “outside a structured counseling arrangement.” The 85% figure, Taylor continued, “is arbitrary.”

Weise agreed “it’s a great opportunity for us to get to see students in different environments,” but said “when it’s prescribed to us on a regular basis, that’s when it starts to erode the time that we can counsel students.”

“There’s no magic fix for everybody, but I think some of those duties — the test coordinating, taking those types of things off of their plates and protecting counselor time more stringently — that would increase our student outcomes … but we also would see happier counselors,” she said. “I think that’s part of our shortage. A lot of our counselors are frustrated. They went in to help students and counsel students, and they’re not getting that.”

Weise recommended schools should hire additional teachers and seek out more volunteer opportunities, especially for parents, to help fill gaps.

She pushed back, however, against Leising’s willingness to reduce the time requirement in a future amendment, emphasizing that 80% is what’s recommended by the ASCA.

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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.

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