Stephen Pruitt

The role of the school counselor has changed pretty dramatically since most of us were in school.

Your school counselor might have helped you with your college applications, given advice on recommendation letters or helped fill out class schedules. These days, their role has become much broader and more critical in addressing student needs.

State regulations require school counselors to have a master’s degree, which includes many hours in childhood development courses. These professionals are experts in offering and coordinating supports to meet the needs of the whole child, embracing everything from advising students about future careers to providing counseling for youth about issues such as bullying and mental health.

At the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), we realize the important role that counselors play in each and every school. We have hired a consultant to support and advise school counselors throughout the state, but we still have far to go in using them to their fullest extent.

The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students. In Kentucky, that ratio for the 2013-14 school year was one counselor per 445 students. And the counselors we do have often are being assigned duties that take them away from their primary job to provide support for children.

 We have work to do.

The evolving role of school counselors focuses on three main areas in Kentucky – transition readiness, social and emotional well-being; and opportunity and access. As we move into the era of the Every Student Succeeds Act, KDE is focusing on all three areas.

In the area of transition readiness, counselors help prepare students for the next level in their academic career, including moving from school to school and grade to grade. In the secondary grades, they focus on life beyond high school, whether it involves postsecondary education, entering the military or moving into a career. They help students complete university, college and career applications, enroll in dual credit opportunities, understand financial aid and align programs of study to a young person’s interests so they have the opportunity to pursue career pathways while still in high school. Counselors get to think about kids, not worry about accountability.

School counselors also work with students and their families on developing essential skills to help ensure young people achieve not only success in high school, but also that graduates can make the cut when applying for competitive jobs in our global economy.

However, the most important role school counselors play is their responsibility in caring for and coordinating programs for the social and emotional well-being of our students. Of the 650,000 children who attend public schools in the Commonwealth, the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services reports that 4.5 percent of them are homeless, 8.2 percent of 10th-graders have attempted suicide in the past year, 13 percent have had a parent incarcerated and 8,500 students are in protective out-of-home placement.

School counselors have a responsibility to students when they show emotional or psychological distress, in addition to being proactive by ensuring all of our public school students have access to educational opportunities that teach coping skills and character education.

Finally, counselors have a large part to play in ensuring students have access to the best education Kentucky can offer. They use data such as test scores to help identify students who would benefit from additional services. They make sure that if a child has a need – whether it is tutoring or creating opportunities for more challenging coursework – that they receive it. This is especially important in Kentucky, where our new accountability system includes special measures to make sure all children – regardless of race, ethnicity, economic status or where they live – have access to the services they need.

Counselors are not just a nice complement for schools to have if there is money to fund the position. They are vital professionals who help ensure all of Kentucky’s students have the services, skills and preparation they will need to become thriving citizens of our Commonwealth. We all have a role in helping fulfill the promise of counselors.

For parents, get to know your child’s school counselor. Regardless of whether your child is in elementary, middle or high school, their school counselor can help them address many of the challenges that may stand in the way of their academic success.

For educators, think outside of the box in regard to how school counselors are being used in your building. Counselors must have the time to address the needs many of Kentucky’s young people face. We know that students cannot learn if their basic needs are not met. It may take some creativity in how schools and districts assign tasks to give counselors the opportunity to offer direct services to students, but it is well worth the effort.

And for counselors, thank you for all you do to help Kentucky’s children achieve their potential. You are a valued and valuable member of the education community. Counselors help teachers across the Commonwealth make sure every child is in the best position possible to learn. That kind of guidance is something we can all use.