Jonathan Durr embodies the definition of what a school counselor should and shouldn’t be. For example, Durr does not just sit in his office handing out college applications. He does not just change schedules for students who want to drop a class. No, no, no. That type of counselor went out with the typewriter.
“School counselors are vital members of the education team,” says Durr, a counselor at Paducah Tilghman High School in Paducah, Kentucky. “We work with teachers, administrators and parents or guardians to help students in the areas of academic and career achievement, personal and social development, and more.”
Much, much more, according to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), sponsors of National School Counseling Week (February 2-6). This year’s theme, “Celebrate School Counseling," focuses attention on the multiple roles school counselors are thrust in to help students from all ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds reach their full potential, graduate from high school, and become productive, responsible adults.
“With all that counselors do, it is sometimes necessary to deal with the most pressing issues first, then get to other items as we can,” Durr says. “It is a constant balancing act to ensure that we are not sacrificing the important for the urgent.”
As with most high schools, Tilghman counselors audit transcripts to ensure students have the classes they need to graduate, make schedule changes as needed, verify that graduation requirements have been met before each student graduates, prepare reports for parents, and attend parent meetings to discuss issues students are having.
“We do our best to meet each student’s needs,” Durr says. “We have a great team in place to get that done.”
The Shrinking Ranks of School Counselors
At a time of an enrollment surge in an increasingly diverse national school system, budget pressures have decimated the ranks of school counselors. This has caused the counselor-to-student ratio to widen.
While ASCA recommends a counselor-to-student ratio of 1-to-250, ratios in many states exceed 1-to-500. At Tilghman, two counselors serve approximately 800 students.
“One-to-250 or less would be great,” Durr notes, “but, realistically, school systems are constrained by budgets.”
Tilghman softens its 1-to-400 ratio somewhat by providing a college-and-career coach who tracks student-testing data, arranges exams for students who did not pass college readiness assessment tests, and supports counselors on larger projects such as college and career day events.
“He is not categorized as a counselor,” says Durr, “and is spread pretty thin with lots of miscellaneous duties, but he is part of the education team.”
Another team member who collaborates with counselors is Lakilia Bedeau, director of Tilghman’s Tornado Alley Youth Services Center (TAYSC), which develops educational programs, identifies learning barriers, and helps students transition from school into higher education, the military, or the world of work. Durr is a member of the TAYSC advisory council.
“School counselors do much of their work behind the scenes,” says Bedeau, a member of the Paducah Education Support Professional Association. “We work with students experiencing a family crisis, contemplating suicide, coping with an unplanned pregnancy or being bullied.”
The youth services center is known throughout Paducah for everything from distributing school supplies and conducting mental health services, to coordinating leadership conferences and career day activities.
A recent Tilghman graduate who participated in TAYSC programs reminded Bedeau of so many students at the school who benefit from counseling services.
“For whatever reasons, many don’t trust adults,” she says. “This one student -- with no means -- was full of excuses when I would talk to her about studying and applying to college. I had to gain her trust before she started listening to me.” Eventually, Bedeau won the student’s confidence and helped her enter a community college where she earned an associate’s degree. “She ended up studying further at a university in Ohio,” says Bedeau.
Preparing Students For Life After School
Studies show that counseling programs can boost student achievement, self-esteem, and help students overcome learning barriers. At Tilghman, senior Courtney Edwards has worked with counselors to expand her career readiness and has been involved with TAYSC since her sophomore year.
“I am more confident thanks to BABES ((Becoming Accomplished Beautiful Excellent and Successful) and Mrs. Bedeau,” says Edwards, 18. “She inspires us to believe in ourselves and encourages us to be great!”
In addition to TAYSC, the counselors also work on college and career readiness programs with the school’s two Navy Junior ROTC instructors.
“We inform students about opportunities in the military in collaboration with them,” Durr says.
Preparing students for life outside of Kentucky is a primary goal of retired Senior Chief Petty Officer Donald Myers, who together with retired Lieutenant Commander Donald Taylor operate Tilghman’s JROTC program.
“Our purpose is to instill in students the value of citizenship, service to the United States, and a sense of accomplishment,” Myers says. “We promote self-confidence, self-discipline, and attention to detail … traits they will need in their adult life.”
The JROTC program is one of a dozen career pathways that school counselors discuss with students.
Durr says the counselors are particularly proud of the financial aid workshops they host for students and parents where college representatives and business leaders visit classes and speak about opportunities in higher education and the job market.
“My greatest reward is seeing a student who has struggled in the past to have a "light bulb" moment where they realize what they need to change in order to take responsibility for their own success,” Durr says.