Counselors provide needed boost to readiness
Editor's note: This article was updated at 10 a.m. to correct the name of the American School Counseling Association and a statement that incorrectly reported the percentage of growth in career technical education programs.
(Colo.) A state-funded grant program now in its sixth year is attracting national attention for significantly bolstering the ranks of school site counselors and driving up previously dismal graduation rates and the number of college-bound students.
Colorado’s School Counselor Corps grant – which until this year received $5 million annually – has proven so successful that Gov. John Hickenlooper agreed to a near doubling to $8 million and to widening eligibility to every middle- and high school in the state.
“The numbers are just staggering,” said Stacey Lestina, who championed this year’s bill as a contract lobbyist for the Colorado School Counselors Association. “It’s one of the few Colorado invented, Colorado grown and Colorado supported programs in the state, and it’s been getting some attention from national groups because it’s such an effective model.”
The School Counselor Corps grant program is Colorado’s answer to a problem that many other states are also dealing with: a shortage of quality, college counseling in public schools caused by decades of budget shortfalls.
Counselors who managed to retain their jobs have done so with little additional training and huge caseloads. While student-to-counselor ratios for all grades have improved somewhat in recent years, the national average of 471-to one is still nearly twice the rate recommended by the American School Counseling Association.
Only three states, according to ASCA data from 2010-11, had ratios that met the recommended caseload of 250 students for each counselor – New Hampshire at 236-to one; Vermont at 235-to one and Wyoming at 200 to one.
California, by far, had the highest student-to-counselor ratio at 1,016-to one, a doubling of the ratio it carried prior to the 2008 economic downturn, the ASCA reported.
Colorado’s ratio of nearly 500 students to every counselor has now dropped to 240-to one in high schools and to 291-to one in middle schools that have received funding through the Counselor Corp grants, according to the state’s 2011-12 program report.
Over the six-year history of the Counselor Corps Grant Program, 153 secondary schools and a handful of middle schools representing 64 districts have benefitted from the addition of almost 200 licensed school counselors.
This, in turn, said Lestina, has led to an overall reduction in dropout rates and a seven percent increase in graduation rates in participating schools. The numbers of high school students completing applications for college admission and for financial aid have skyrocketed in those schools as well, as has student participation in college-readiness courses.
The first three years of the program boosted overall participation in career and college preparation courses, including career technical education, AP, Honors and IB classes, by 284 percent, and concurrent enrollment – in which a student simultaneously takes a college-level course while in high school – is up 53 percent.
In that same time frame, the college-attendance rate among program schools was up 13 percent while the overall statewide rate decreased by half a percentage point. In just the second year of the program, the total amount of money Colorado students received in scholarships increased by $5 million, from $18.1 million to $23.7 million. By year three, the total amount had grown to $32 million.
Studies show that school counseling and postsecondary preparation can have a significant effect on students, beginning as early as seventh or eighth grade to identify their post-graduation goals and begin planning to achieve them.
As of 2011-12, all Colorado students must prepare an Individual Career and Academic Plan, a personalized postsecondary plan that ensures readiness for college and/or workforce success. Counselor Corps grantees were early adopters of the new ICAPs and “an incubator to show success,” according to the state’s Department of Education.
In an attempt to build sustainability within the program, grant recipients are required to provide a detailed plan explaining how they will sustain School Counselor Corps Grant activities after their year-three funding expires.
The state also required the districts, beginning with the second year of funding and continuing through the third year, to decrease grant funding by 10 percent per year, although they were required to maintain the same level of counseling services compared to prior years.