School counselors say their jobs are in jeopardy under state plan

Public school counselors said Thursday their education role would be radically diminished or even eliminated under a plan by state Superintendent of Education John White to give local districts more flexibility.

Under current rules, high schools are supposed to have one counselor for every 450 students.

White’s proposal would eliminate that requirement.

A committee of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is set to take up the issue on Tuesday at 10 a.m.

Cathy Smith, president of the Louisiana School Counselors Association, said counselors play a vital role in assisting students and that abolishing the staffing requirement would hurt the state’s bid to improve public education.

“If a counselor is doing what they are supposed to be doing, they are making a huge difference,” said Smith, a counselor at Hathaway High School in Jennings.

Critics contend that White’s proposal would hurt students by relying on untrained officials to handle duties long done by counselors. hey said that, without the current staffing requirement, some school districts will eliminate counselors in favor of football coaches or other spending. “And I think it would be devastating,” Smith said.

High school counselors are supposed to assist students on course selections, make sure they are on schedule to graduate, and assist in college and career options.

In some districts they interpret tests, grapple with student disciplinary problems and oversee student records, among other duties.

Frank Phinney, a counselor at Walker Freshman High School, said White’s plan is a drastic change and one that would damage public schools. “It is just a complete disregard for our training, the role that we play, and I think it is just wrong,” Phinney said.

Even the current mandate — one counselor for every 450 students — is too lax, he said. “Even that is well above the national recommendation, which is like 250 to 1,” Phinney said.

White, asked for comment about the criticism, issued a prepared statement.

The superintendent said counselors provide “invaluable services” that assist students in their personal development. “But schools should be able to use partnerships, vendors, part-time staff and others, along with full-time counselors, to achieve (goals) in the way that is best for their students,” according to the statement.

Smith, who has exchanged emails with White about her concerns, noted that counselors are required to have advanced degrees.

“They are looking at a team of people to meet the needs,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, these people aren’t trained.”

Ending the staffing rule would also open the door to eliminate counselors, she said.

“To me that is what it is,” Smith said of White’s plan.

The state has about 2,300 school counselors, state education officials said.

The change is included in the superintendent’s plan to overhaul the state handbook for school administrators, which is called Bulletin 741.

White has said his proposal would allow local school districts to set their own academic calendar and allow students to earn credit for subjects where they can show proficiency rather than attending the class.

BESE leaders say they expect the plan to win approval next week.

Counselors contend that the only BESE members who have shown sympathy for their concerns are Lottie Beebe, of Breaux Bridge, and Carolyn Hill, of Baton Rouge.

Neither could be reached for comment.

Michael Lefort, who lives in Cutoff, recently retired after 33 years as a school counselor.

“The potential negative impact for students will become staggering,” Lefort said in an email when asked about the proposed change.

The role of counselors in public high schools has been debated at BESE off and on since 2007.

In the past, critics have said, counselors were routinely assigned odd tasks, such as prom planning and organizing the 4-H Club, and that doing so hurt their ability to help students.

But officials said that the state redefined the role of counselors a few years ago to follow a national model aimed at improving student achievement.

“And the whole counseling phenomenon that we were excited about is going to go by the wayside,” Smith said.