Before 8 a.m. on a typical school day, a Center Grove counselor already has helped a new student get around the school or talked to them about a major life event.
As a guidance counselor at Center Grove Middle School Central, Christy Burger’s job is to make sure students have what they need to be successful in school, both academically and emotionally.
But what that means is different for each student.
School counselors help students struggling with suicidal thoughts or advise them on how to respond to bullies on social media. At elementary schools, counselors will develop curriculum that can help teach students healthy habits to get through anger or to overcome self-esteem issues. High school counselors help students get into college or counsel them on their grades.
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Across the county, nearly 50 counselors work at local schools. Their job is to help students succeed in the classroom, plan for their future and help them with social issues, such as a parent’s divorce or a friendship gone sour.
The Indiana Department of Education recommends a ratio of 1 counselor for every 300 students at the middle and high school level, and one counselor to 600 students at the elementary school level. No Johnson County school districts fall within the recommended level. Most just miss the recommendation.
“Any counselor will tell you they want their ratios to be lower,” said Shannon Fritz, director of guidance at Whiteland Community High School.
The American School Counselor Association, a non-profit organization, recommends an overall ratio of 250 students for every counselor, said Jill Cook, assistant director.
Studies also have shown that students get more out of school counseling with programs that can serve all students and not just ones who come to their counselors with an issue, she said. And in the past 15 years, school counseling has become more proactive, with counselors developing more curriculum for students with emotional issues or developing programs, such as sending backpacks of food home with children who do not get enough food on the weekends.
“It is not just doing lessons and groups because you like it,” Cook said. “It is tailoring a program to the school’s needs.”
The No. 1 goal of school counselors is to remove any social or emotional barriers from students so that they can learn while they are at school and to equip them with coping skills they can use to address social and work issues their entire lives, counselors said.
“What people don’t realize out in the world is, there is a lot of kids coming to school with trauma,” said Sandra Brown, guidance counselor at Creekside Elementary School in Franklin.
What each student needs and what counselors do to help them looks different and depends on what grade level the student is in. Their job is to help the students deal with and sometimes compartmentalize the trauma, which can range from a parent’s divorce to not getting enough food to eat at home, so they can concentrate at school and get an education, Brown said.
“The goal is to do whatever it takes to make kids successful at school,” she said. “They can’t focus on math and reading until their brain compartmentalizes the trauma issues.”
Franklin Community Schools has implemented a counseling program for students in kindergarten through eighth grade that is meant to take a more proactive approach, Brown said.
Curriculum has been developed to help students deal with common issues, such as anger management, getting through a parent’s divorce or helping young girls with self esteem issues. Students are identified and then go through the program in small groups.
“It is offering those skills that will help them in school and in life,” she said.
Teachers also can be a significant help to counselors by identifying students who may need help and reinforcing lessons that guidance counselors give to students, counselors said.
For counselors, there is no typical day, Fritz said.
Most of their day is spent with students, and many have workloads that typically have them working 50 hours a week, counselors said.
They can spend hours outside of school working on paperwork or writing letters of recommendations and sending transcripts to colleges for seniors. Or they are writing training programs to help teachers give standardized tests such as the PSAT. They are lying awake and wondering if the advice or action they took for a student was the best choice to help them succeed.
“When I think of the hardest part, what do I think about at home when I am not at work,” Fritz said.
Guidance counselors are trained to help students through some trauma, but also on when they need to seek help outside of the school, Burger said.
The biggest issues guidance counselors in middle school help their students grapple with are social media, self harm, such as cutting or suicidal thoughts, and divorce, she said. Some Burger can handle herself. She can teach students how they can respond to someone bullying them on social media or tell students what their role might be if their parents divorce and help them decide what they can and cannot control.
Larger issues need outside help. If a child tells Burger they are cutting themselves or have suicidal thoughts, she will talk to the student, loop the parents in and decide if they need additional treatment she cannot provide, she said.
At Franklin, school psychologists can help with some of the work.
Counselors have to decide what they can control and cannot, they said.
They cannot control what is going on in a student’s home. However, they can help them through it, they said.
“You can offer support and help; you can’t take back what has happened,” Brown said.
Here is a look at the ratios of school counselors to students at school districts across the county:
Elementary: 642 to 1
Middle school: 383 to 1
High school: 313 to 1
Overall: 435 to 1
Elementary: 635 to 1
Middle school: 394 to 1
High school: 383 to 1
Overall: 420 to 1
Elementary: 381 to 1
Intermediate school: 383 to 1
Middle school: 391 to 1
High school: 326 to 1
Overall: 363 to 1
Elementary: 434 to 1
Middle school/high school: 449 to 1
Overall: 441 to 1
Elementary: 440 to 1
Middle school: 305 to 1
High school: 303 to 1
Overall: 325 to 1
Elementary/intermediate school: One person with a degree in social work works as a home school adviser.
Middle school: 450 to 1
High school: 300 to 1