Asked what difference school counselors can make, Nola Thomasson recalls a student who could have become a statistic.
Smart and hard-working, he was living in a single-parent household with little means. He wanted to participate in a Colorado Springs School District 11 program that would allow him to graduate from high school with college credits without having to pay college tuition. But that required him to pay fees and purchase books that he couldn't afford, despite working a part-time job. He was beginning to wonder what the point of concentrating on education was.
Thomasson, who is one of two grant-funded D-11 school counselors, says her office was able to help: The boy received a scholarship for his books, a reduction in fees, and a small loan to cover the rest of his school-related expenses. Today he's still in school, and planning to attend a four-year university after he graduates. He's also mentoring younger kids in D-11 with similar challenges. "He just is a fantastic role model," Thomasson says.
The School Counselor Corps Grant Program, which pays most of Thomasson's salary via annual appropriations by the state legislature, began helping schools in the 2008-09 school year. Administered through the Colorado Department of Education, the program gives schools money to hire middle- and high-school counselors, even as the recession has eaten away budgets.
The numbers suggest the program is working. Now legislation is in play that could expand it.
Hints of promise
The counselor grant program, which funds districts for three school-year cycles, is based on the belief that with more school counselors, Colorado will see increased graduation rates and more teens in colleges and job training programs. While the state has improved its dropout rate in recent years, in 2012-13 the rate still stood at 2.5 percent, or 10,664 kids.
Counselors, some say, have simply been outnumbered. In the 2010-11 school year, the average ratio for counselors to students in schools that were about to receive grant funding was 363 to 1. The American School Counselors Association recommends a ratio of 250 to 1. After grant funding arrived the ratio dropped to an average of 261 to 1. Locally, schools in D-11, Harrison School District 2 and Falcon School District 49, plus a few charter schools received funding under the program.
A 2013 state report found that schools participating in the program saw an annual increase of 4.2 percent in their graduation rate after their first year of funding. Over four years, the funded high schools also saw a reduction in their dropout rate that outpaced that of unfunded schools. (The state's graduation rate has increased 1.5 percentage points annually since 2009-10.) Funded middle schools increased their attendance rates.
Senate Bill 14-150, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Rachel Zenzinger and Nancy Todd, expands the grant program.
"The School Counselor Corps bill will have a huge, beneficial impact on students' success — especially the students who are considered 'at risk,'" Zenzinger tells the Independent via email. "In recent years, most schools made their deepest cuts in the school-counselor departments, and kids suffered by failing to graduate high school and failing to progress into college."
SB150 has passed through the Senate Committee on Education. If it passes both houses and is signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, it would double grant funding for the program, to $10 million, and increase the grant cycle from three to four years.
Stacey Lestina, contract lobbyist for the Colorado School Counselors Association, which brought the legislation, says schools that have previously received funding would be eligible to reapply. Schools considered to have higher-risk populations — determined by a variety of factors — would get priority.
Lots to do
School counselors say their jobs are at times overwhelming.
Part of the job is helping with students' emotional and personal issues like poverty, suicidal thoughts, mental illness, death and domestic abuse. They're also expected to run prevention programs, like anti-bullying initiatives.
Thomasson, who works in D-11's six Title One middle schools, notes that counselors also help students identify their skills and career paths, fill out complex paperwork, and oversee standardized tests, like the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, the SAT and ACT, which eat away time.
That's where the grant comes in — funding counselors who can focus solely on specific goals like drop-out prevention and career readiness.
Chrissy Fly, who holds one of 2.5 grant-funded counselor positions in D-2, says she helps kids at Harrison High School with internships, job-shadowing opportunities, part-time jobs and college visits. She's able to work with kids one-on-one to help them address whatever is holding them back.
Fly recalls one student who was the valedictorian of his class. Because his parents brought him to the country illegally as a young child, he didn't think he'd have a shot at college. He needed loans, and wasn't eligible. Counselors helped the boy get enough scholarships to go to the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the university's staff helped him again when the bills became too much to handle.
Now, she says, he mentors other kids in Harrison who face barriers to higher education.