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Project Idaho: The need for more school counselors

She says counselors can really make a difference socially and academically if they were just able to do their jobs. (CBS2 Staff Photo)

The way we address social and emotional needs of students can have a huge impact on their education and future.

Jordan Chesler is the president of the Idaho School Counselor Association and works as a school counselor in Nampa. She has her daily duties and check ins with students but like everyone in her profession she has to be prepared for anything.

"You may have a fight that breaks out and you talk with those two kids about conflict resolution , you may have you know a kid who got removed from their home last night and so they need in here so it really does vary from day to day," Chesler said.

Last year Idaho school counselors were surveyed and asked about what they think is working and what needs some work.

"The American School Counseling Association says the ideal ratio that they recommend is 250 students to one counselor," Chesler said. "The data that was released for the 2014 - 15 year Idaho currently averages 610 to one."

Like many topics in Idaho education this plays out differently in each and every school.

"That tends to be skewed when we have our little tiny schools but then you see some 5A schools that have 2,500 kids and they only have four counselors," Chesler said. "Especially in our elementary schools it's very normal for our elementary school counselors to be the only one in their building and have a case load of 500 to 600 kids."

She says this student to counselor ratio makes it hard to get ahead of a problem

"A lot of times we don't get a kid on our radar until there's been a major thing happen, there's been a suicide attempt or a threat or they threw a chair in a classroom just because they can't handle those emotions," Chesler said.

Superintendent of public instruction Sherri Ybarra agrees this is something for Idaho to work on.

"One of the long term goals is making sure students have opportunities to see a counselor if that's a need," Ybarra said.

Chesler says there's often a lack of access to outside community resources.

"Coming from rural Idaho, I struggled out there for resources," Chesler said. "Finding counselors just even in the area just that my kids could get into if they were willing and then let alone you have the transportation issue."

But she says she's seeing a positive step forward in the Treasure Valley.

"There have started to be formed partnerships with outside counselor resources that are coming into the school, like my school will be getting a full time counselor in our building, outside counselor who will be here," Chesler said. "For us we obviously can't see a kid for 50 minutes and do a full session but if that person can be here and have just this designated list and then we can kind of follow up when they're not here.:

She also stressed the importance of defining her role.

"We're no longer that guidance counselor that sits in here and waits for someone to come in to talk to you about college and career," Chesler said. "You know we are trained in mental health and that's what we want to do. We want to be helping kids with that."

But instead she says counselors are often saddled with work that has nothing to do with counseling.

"Too often counselors are doing schedules, they're subbing in classrooms, they're dealing with discipline," Chesler said. "You know sometimes that happens and we get that but when it's a regular basis you know we're not getting to do what we were trained to do."

She says counselors can really make a difference socially and academically if they were just able to do their jobs.

"I have a counselor friend who she's in three different elementary schools and so she constantly is just in a reactionary place and you know this is her first year in the field and she already is in that moment going am i even making a difference like she just feels like she's always there to clean up a mess rather than really connect with a kid,"Chesler said "We lose good counselors that way so i think definitely addressing burnout and part of that is coming from us just doing so many things that I guess would say don't fulfill us."

"One of the things that Idaho did put in place was college and career advisers and so that is something that works towards alleviating the counselor and making sure that counselors are actually doing counseling duties," Ybarra said.

Chesler says this has helped free up some time to focus on the social and emotional needs of the students but the system still needs work

"At this point there's no official endorsement there's not any requirement for what this college and career counselor is supposed to have in order to be that," Chesler said.

She says the Idaho Career Association is working to create standardized training for college and career advisers.

"Our student's education are being interrupted often by behaviors and drama and stress. So I think in a big picture you know if our kids aren't coming out prepared which we hear that all the time," Chesler said. "If everyone really understood what school counselors could be doing in their building I think that would have a huge impact on the education of Idaho."

Chesler says beyond shortages extra work and lack of resources, counselors struggle with the stigma surrounding mental health

She says it's important to let students know it's okay to feel they way they do and to ask for help dealing with it.

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We are making a long-term commitment to reporting on education.

Are you a former Idaho educator? Email us at ProjectIdaho@kboi2.com

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