Utah sets focus on school counselors

Utah is focusing on school counselors to help students not only graduate from high school but also move on to higher education. (Photo courtesy Ivette Mehl)










Utah is emphasizing the role of secondary school counselors to aid high school students in obtaining higher education.

The Utah School Board of Education published a report this month reaffirming the standard that all junior high and high schools have one school counselor for every 350 students.

“If you have a highly implemented program and a lower counselor ratio you can increase college-going rate by 10%,” said Lillian Tsosie-Jensen, a specialist in the Utah State Board of Education’s counseling program.

The board first issued the standard in 2008, but because of the crippling economic recession they did not issue any repercussions for school districts that could not meet the standard.

Despite the lax reinforcement, the statewide average student-to-counselor ratio improved in the past year, going from 1:356 to 1:350, Tsosie-Jensen said. But there are still 27 school districts that do not meet the guidelines, including Provo and Nebo.

Gov. Gary R. Herbert plans to add $2 million of Utah’s $3.6 billion state K–12 education budget toward school counseling during 2015. This year he also proposes to increase the local discretionary funding in the education budget by 2.5%, the largest increase since the recession according to the governor’s manager of Budget and Policy, Phil Dean.

But some feel simply adding more high school counselors is not going to get more kids to college.

“I think the counselors in high schools are working feverishly to try and help these kids graduate, and I applaud their efforts, but obviously we need to do more,” said Utah State Rep. Bradley G. Last, R-Hurricane.

Rep. Last pioneered the 66% by 2020 bill last year, which aims to have 66% of Utah adults with postsecondary degrees by 2020. This bill received strong support in both Utah’s legislative and executive branches.

“I believe that the most effective use of a school counselor is someone who is very familiar with the job market and economy,” he said.

The bill also states that 66% of Utah jobs by 2020 will require a postsecondary degree. Most of these jobs will be centered on the technology field. Rep. Last said school counselors should be focused on helping kids be aware of these career opportunities and requirements, rather than just helping them finish high school.

The governor recognizes the importance of career counseling as Utah’s economy becomes more advanced, and its focus is turning toward these aspects of counseling, Dean said.

Utah Futures is one of these digital career counseling tools that might be receiving funding this year, said Rep. Last. It is a website that helps kids explore career options and find the ones that might be right for them.

Utah has funded this program in the past, with mixed results. While kids use the program when they meet with their counselors, they don’t seem to be using it at home with their parents.

Rep. Last hopes additional funding will help upgrade the system and make it more user-friendly and enjoyable for students to use on their own.

Despite these plans for improvement, the Board of Education’s criteria still fall short in comparison with guidelines set by the American School Counselor’s Association (1:250).

However, Tsosie-Jensen said based on Utah’s current education budget, these national standards are unrealistic.

In 2011 Utah spent the least amount of any of the 50 states on per capita public education, according to last year’s census report.

“To get up to national averages would require very significant increases, billions of dollars,” Dean said. “The government is committed to increasing the public education budget but is aware that in Utah we have unique demographics.”

Despite the lack of money, Utah’ graduation rate jumped 4% this past year, from 76% in 2011 to 80% in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Education website. This puts Utah about in the middle compared to the rest of the U.S.

As the governor continues to put a heavy emphasis on education, the goal is that more improvements will follow.

“With respect to public education, we get the biggest bang for our buck out of any state in the nation,” Rep. Last said.

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