You may have read the recent editorial in The Source (Feb. 4, 2016) regarding the "Counseling Crisis in Bend-La Pine Schools." The editorial addressed both the significant increase in mental health issues within our school district and the lack of mental health resources district-wide, particularly in the counselor/student staffing ratio. As a recently retired high school counselor in the district, and as a teacher/counselor who worked in Bend-La Pine since 1979, I believe I can shed some light and historical perspective on how we got to this point.
Hopefully we can all agree that the current situation needs to be addressed. On the district website, we learn that we are the fifth largest school district in Oregon and currently have 17,534 students. The district has shared with our community the goal of being a "world-class" school system, yet there are only 23.5 counselors assigned to support and provide mental health services to our 17,534 students. When you do the math, that equals one counselor for every 746 students. Currently, there are no elementary counselors in the district, and middle school and high school counseling ratios exceed 1 to 400. This presents a significant challenge to support children, families and teachers.
The editorial suggests that budget cuts during the recent Great Recession are the cause for the reduction in counseling services within the district; however, the reasons are a bit more nuanced. The elimination of elementary counseling and the establishment of big counselor ratios at the secondary level are the result of past staffing decisions by district administrators holding decidedly different philosophical views over the value of school counselors and the importance of providing mental health services to children and families.
In the 1990s and before, Bend-LaPine assigned a counselor to every elementary school. The counselor's role was multi-faceted and unique. Elementary counselors offered parenting classes, provided small-group support to students struggling with issues of divorce, depression, grief and loss, and taught classroom lessons focusing on social/emotional issues and sexual abuse awareness and prevention. Counselors also provided support to teachers by working with troubled and at-risk students. It was a unique role and position: a person serving as an advocate for children and families, and a trained professional (most always with a master's degree in counseling) providing a pivotal connecting point for mental health resources outside of the school system.
Over the past 20 years or so, the district leadership decided to proceed in a different direction. The superintendent established a counselor/student ratio of 1 to 400 at the secondary level, and most significantly, elementary counselors began to disappear, replaced by "student service" positions, roles frequently filled by staff members with no counselor training and often professionals who were viewed as administrators-in-training. In other words, a significant philosophical shift occurred; hiring more administrators over counselors became the preferred goal. This is not to suggest that student service staff members do not provide important support to elementary schools, or, that those positions are not needed in our elementary schools today. The philosophical message from district leaders was clear that providing more counseling resources was not a priority. The 1 to 400 ratio at the high school level has not only impacted mental health support to students, but it also has made it difficult to provide counseling assistance to students transitioning to post graduation life, including the college search and application process.
The reduction of counseling and mental health resources for children and families in Bend - La Pine presents enormous challenges for those of us working most directly with children and families. Three-Rivers Elementary, a K-8 school facing significant poverty and mental health challenges, has no counselor; the position was eliminated in 2010. Pilot Butte Middle School, a high-needs school with a large population of English-language learners and 65 percent receiving reduced or free lunch, has 1.5 counselors for nearly 700 students. La Pine High School, with over 400 students, has one counselor. The district's current counselor/student ratio in my opinion reflects a lack of support for our most vulnerable children and families, and is a difficult position for the district to continue to defend.
The Bend-LaPine School District has an excellent school board. We have a new superintendent and administrative team that, I believe, are receptive to addressing this issue. Counseling ratios at the secondary level need to be reduced. Elementary counselor positions should be re-established in our schools. I encourage the school board to work collaboratively with district leaders, district counselors, parents and our community to address this issue.
Respectfully, Gary Whitley