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.”

Getting the diploma

New York eases graduation requirements for students with disabilities

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

In a significant change to New York’s graduation requirements, students with disabilities will soon be able to earn an alternative diploma without passing any of the state’s exit exams.

Instead, the state will allow them to replace a minimum score on the Regents exams with a work-readiness credential, which they can earn through work experience and vocational classes or by passing an exam that assesses entry-level work skills.

Supporters, including parents who lobbied for the rule change, say it is a reasonable way to prevent students with disabilities from missing out on a diploma because of low test scores. But critics have argued the policy would lower the state’s graduation standards.

On Monday, when the state Board of Regents approved the change as an “emergency measure,” state officials tried to preempt any suggestion that the change would water down the standards.

“We’re not saying that they have to do less. We’re saying that the standards are the same and the requirements are the same,” said Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy education commissioner, during the Regents’ monthly meeting. “What we’re talking about is, if you have a disability that precludes you from actually passing the exam, or demonstrating what you know with the current exams, this is the mechanism to do it.”

A Regents committee voted in favor of the rule Monday after it was added to their meeting agenda without prior notice or public comment — prompting an outcry from at least one education advocacy group. If the full board signs off Tuesday, the change will go into effect immediately, enabling students to graduate under the new requirements as early as next month.

The state currently grants different types of high-school diploma. A traditional “Regents” diploma requires students to pass four Regents exams. An alternative “local” diploma is available to certain students — including those with disabilities, who are still learning English, or who have struggled academically — who pass two exams or meet other requirements.

Students with disabilities only need a score of 55 (or 52, on appeal) on their math and English exams rather than the usual 65 to earn a local diploma. Under the new policy, they will not need to achieve any minimum score.

Instead, superintendents will review students’ work to check that it reflects appropriate knowledge of the material, students must pass their classes and participate in the exams. They will also have to earn a work-readiness credential called the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential, or CDOS.

The credential, created in 2013 for students with disabilities, is meant to certify that students are ready for employment. There are two ways to earn it: One option allows students to complete 216 hours of vocational coursework and participate in job shadowing. The other lets students take an approved work-readiness exam, some of which have been criticized for lacking rigor.

It is unclear how many students would benefit from this new option. (Last year, only 418 students with disabilities took advantage of a “superintendent’s review” option allowing them to earn a local diploma by passing just the math and English Regents exams.) State officials have not estimated how many students may benefit from the new option but said they do not expect it to be a large number.

The policy is designed to help students like Lauren Elie and Brandon Pilnik, whose mothers were among the parents lobbying the state for years to change the graduation rules. After Monday’s vote, they burst into applause.

Brandon and Lauren, who are dating and each have a disability, are both one Regents exam shy of a diploma. Lauren, who missed the qualifying score on her English exam by one point, is working with kindergarteners as a teacher’s aide; Brandon is a musician who plays at a senior rehab center. Both have had to take internships instead of full-time jobs because they lack diplomas, their parents said.

“I was very excited, beyond excited,” said Betty Pilnik, Brandon’s mother, who has been fighting for the policy change for more than two years. “Anyone who knows Brandon knows that he deserves this.”

Ashley Grant, an attorney at Advocates for Children, said some of her organization’s clients have completed their required high-school courses but struggled to pass the exit exams. She said it was encouraging that the state is creating a route to graduation that bypasses the exams — which she does not consider to be the same as easing requirements.

“Simply removing the barrier of Regents exams doesn’t mean standards are being lowered,” she said.

But some proponents of strong state standards took the opposite view. Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the advocacy group High Achievement New York, who criticized the last-minute addition of the measure to the Regents’ agenda, noted that the latest graduation change comes just a year after the state created the “superintendents’ review” graduation option.

“The Regents shouldn’t make significant policy changes with an 11th hour and 59th minute addition to the agenda,” he said in a statement. “Removing another graduation requirement, demonstrating a minimum score on ELA and Math Regents exams, so soon after the last change is the wrong direction.”

The state will expected public comments on the new policy through Feb. 12. After that, the Regents are expected to vote on a permanent rule change in March.

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.

Follow the money

Final Denver school board campaign finance reports show who brought in the most late money

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Victoria Tisman, 8, left, works with paraprofessional Darlene Ontiveros on her Spanish at Bryant-Webster K-8 school in Denver.

Final campaign finance reports for this year’s hard-fought Denver school board elections are in, and they show a surge of late contributions to Angela Cobián, who was elected to represent southwest Denver and ended up bringing in more money than anyone else in the field.

The reports also showed the continued influence of independent groups seeking to sway the races. Groups that supported candidates who favor Denver Public Schools’ current direction raised and spent far more than groups that backed candidates looking to change things.

No independent group spent more during the election than Raising Colorado, which is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. In the week and a half before the Nov. 7 election, it spent $126,985. That included nearly $57,000 to help elect Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent supportive of the district’s direction who lost her seat representing northeast Denver to challenger Jennifer Bacon. Raising Colorado spent $13,765 on mail opposing Bacon in that same period.

Teachers union-funded committees also were active in the campaign.

Individually, Cobián raised more money in the days before the election than the other nine candidates combined. She pulled in $25,335 between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

That includes a total of $11,000 from three members of the Walton family that founded Walmart: Jim, Alice and Steuart. The Waltons have over the years invested more than $1 billion in education-related causes, including the creation of charter schools.

Total money raised, spent by candidates
  • Angela Cobián: $123,144, $105,200
    Barbara O’Brien: $117,464, $115,654
    Mike Johnson: $106,536, $103,782
    Rachele Espiritu: $94,195, $87,840
    Jennifer Bacon: $68,967, $67,943
    Carrie A. Olson: $35,470, $35,470
    Robert Speth: $30,635, $31,845
    “Sochi” Gaytan: $28,977, $28,934
    Tay Anderson: $18,766, $16,865
    Julie Bañuelos: $12,962, $16,835

Cobián was supported in her candidacy by donors and groups that favor the district’s brand of education reform, which includes collaborating with charter schools. In the end, Cobián eclipsed board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who had been leading in contributions throughout the campaign, to raise the most money overall: a total of $123,144.

The two candidates vying to represent central-east Denver raised about $5,000 each in the waning days of the campaign. Incumbent Mike Johnson pulled in $5,300, including $5,000 from Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. Teacher Carrie A. Olson, who won the seat, raised $4,946 from a host of donors, none of whom gave more than $500 during that time period.

The other candidates raised less than $5,000 each between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

O’Brien, who staved off two competitors to retain her seat representing the city at-large, spent the most in that period: $31,225. One of her competitors, Julie Bañuelos, spent the least.