Problematic

Too few and too busy: With school counselors overwhelmed, Indiana kids fall through cracks

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
The IPS administration is proposing adding more career training programs to high schools.

As a school counselor, Aimee Portteus helps hundreds of kids every year — but it’s the ones she can’t quite help who stay with her.

Just last year, she had two smart, promising students who were all set to head to college. She’d worked with them since they were 9th graders at Plymouth High School in northern Indiana and was thrilled when their hard work in class and on their college applications paid off with acceptance letters.

Then, bad news: both students failed Algebra II and learned they wouldn’t earn their Core 40 diplomas, which are designed to assure graduates are ready for college.

In both cases, the colleges put the students on notice that they were no longer welcome and would have to find another way to pursue their academic dreams.

Portteus was crestfallen, knowing she could have helped these students — if only she’d had more time.

“If I had more time, I would have been able to help them get through that class,” she said.

But time is not a luxury afforded to many Indiana high school counselors. These two students were among 333 students assigned to Portteus last year.

That’s far more students than the 250-student maximum recommended by the American School Counselor Association but by Indiana standards, it’s actually a fairly light load.

The average Indiana school counselor is responsible for 634 students, ranking the state among the worst in the country for counselor workload.

The cost to the state of that workload is enormous, said Matt Fleck, a former counselor and consultant who has studied the challenges preventing school counselors from helping their students succeed after graduation.

“You hear all the time from people ‘I fell through the cracks,’” Fleck said.

If counselors are too busy to help them, “that is is the opportunity (to) …. have a true impact on their lives that is lost,” he said.

As Indiana pushes for more students, especially those from poor families, to complete a college degree or technical training that will help them get valuable jobs, the stakes are high. Advocates say having too-few counselors is one of the biggest barriers holding students back.

It’s a problem exacerbated by the fact that the people charged with guiding students are increasingly saddled with unmanageable workloads — and proposals to help them have so far fallen short.

For Portteus, that means her days are crammed with coordinating student testing, pushing administrative paperwork such as individualized learning plans and planning for academic interventions. She works with the school social worker, collaborates with teachers, coaches students through academic and emotional challenges and helps them figure out whether they’re headed for college or a career after graduation.

That doesn’t leave much time for things like knowing students which are struggling with Algebra II and could use some help. There’s just too many kids who need attention.

“You’d be amazed how much a few extra kids makes a difference,” Portteus said.

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Many things separate the students who graduate and go on to promising careers from those who are left behind — luck, privilege, parent involvement.

But Mandy Savitz-Romer, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a former school counselor herself, says having an available and knowledgeable counselor can make an important difference for kids, especially kids from low-income communities.

“Counselors are essential to closing the achievement gap,” Savitz-Romer said. “But counselors’ roles are often poorly-defined and their conditions are flawed.”

With limited resources and increasing demands from state testing programs and other requirements, counselors are often pulled away from their essential work.

“We did the math a couple years ago,” said Julie Baumgart, chairwoman of the American School Counselor Association board and head of the counseling department at Western Boone Junior-Senior High School in the rural community of Thorntown. “If you take a full-time school counselor, the number of school days, take out the 40 percent of non-counseling tasks, and take out the time for passing periods, we have less than 30 minutes per student to meet their socio-emotional, academic and college and career readiness goals each year.”

A study by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce showed that a majority of counselors reported spending no more than a quarter of their time on college and career counseling and that the amount of time spent on non-counselor work had doubled since 2010.

But as Indiana lawmakers are increasingly pushing for students to be better prepared for college or careers after high school, advocates say the state needs to do a better job of providing counselors with crucial training and needed resources.

One obvious way to increase counseling time is to simply hire more counselors, but efforts to increase funding for Indiana school counselors have not gone far with lawmakers.

When Dennis Kruse, the Auburn Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, last year introduced legislation that would have required every elementary school to have a counselor, he later withdrew the bill due to concerns about its cost.

That has counseling advocates looking for alternatives that would at least reduce some of the extra work that has been landing on counselors. Efforts in the works include a push to give counselors better data to help streamline their efforts, to provide more training opportunities and to provide incentives for schools that could encourage them to invest in their counselors.

The data effort is coming from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. The department sees counselors as key players who can help better direct students to opportunities after high school and is working on putting better tools in their hands.

The department is building a data network designed to forecast the future of Indiana’s job growth and the to identify the skills workers will need. It’s calling for better training for counselors to help them effectively use that information.

“The time they have to spend on actual counseling is small and the work they do is critical,” said Amy Marsh, the department’s chief operating officer for business intelligence. “Because of their time constraints, we need to provide this information regularly and electronically.”

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Another effort to improve student counseling is coming from the Chamber Foundation, a policy research foundation connected with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which has funded several studies into school counselors and how they do their jobs.

One of the foundation’s most recent studies found a divide between what students need to know and what businesses expect. The report called for counselors to be better equipped to help students.

“We are hearing from our businesses that our students aren’t ready,” said Christy Huston, the foundation’s executive director. “The Chamber Foundation believes that collaboration between employers and schools’ counseling staff is ideal for tackling college and career preparedness.”

The foundation is exploring the launching of an awards program that would recognize counseling best practices and schools with excellent school counselors and college and career readiness programs. That program, however, is in the beginning stages, Huston said.

The Indiana Department of Education already recognizes Gold Star schools, which are schools with comprehensive counseling programs that follow state standards. Schools that mimic a national model counseling program proposed by the American School Counselor Association can also earn a special designation from that group.

But doubts remain about whether incentives are enough to get schools to work toward better counseling.

The counselor association will again push for new laws that would require schools to have plans for training counselors in career and college readiness.

“We had proposed a college and career readiness certification program,” Baumgart said of another idea the group pushed that went nowhere.

Butler University offers such a certificate program for school counselors but there is no statewide recognition of the credential.

Still, advocates warn that training and data can only go so far and that counselors won’t be able to get more students into college or career training until they can focus their energy on the duties that matter most.

“As a nation, the first thing is to put a spotlight on these issues,” Savitz-Romer said. “Counselors are an asset to schools, we just haven’t leveraged them.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”