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Federal support to improve counseling in 35 districts

American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of about 250 students per counselor

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded $12.3 million to 35 school districts in 17 states to expand counseling programs, as ongoing budget cuts have led to reductions in the numbers of counselors and other support staff.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of about 250 students per counselor to help improve student attendance and academic performance, and reduce the number of disciplinary referrals. But the national average was 471 students per counselor in the 2010-2011 school year, the most recent year for which data are available.

Schools will use the funds to increase the range, availability, quantity, and quality of counseling by offering more comprehensive services and hiring more certified counselors. Districts were chosen based on a demonstrated need for new or additional counseling services, and how innovative and promising their proposals were.

For example, the Cajon Valley Union School District in California received nearly $400,000 to implement comprehensive counseling services and a social-emotional learning curriculum. The district plans to hire four counselors for its eight elementary schools, which currently have no counselors.

Nationwide, the funds will allow counselors and parents to get more training in identifying mental health issues—especially important because government estimates show that between 14 and 20 percent of students suffer from some emotional disturbance or mental illness, and 8 percent of students have attempted suicide.

“There is a real mental health need among our students,” says Norris Dickard, group leader of the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students. “Counselors have the training to recognize those issues and get these students the support they need.”

Counselors often lead campaigns against bullying and drug abuse. They also help students choose the courses they need to be ready for college, apply for financial aid, and fill out job applications.

The grant money also will allow schools to work more closely with community social service agencies. Counselors who recognize serious problems can connect students to outside services such as psychologists or medical professionals.

Despite the many roles counselors play, few states have a sufficient number of counselors. President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget requests include new investments related to school counseling, including $150 million to support the hiring of counselors and other mental health professionals.

“It’s critical for administrators to realize that counselors are a vital part of the team, and they play many different roles to support student success, all of which are areas that impact student achievement and academic goals,” Dickard says.