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More guidance counselors urged

June 20, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

In order to learn well, some students need more than good teachers and textbooks - they need counseling.

That's the theory behind a push for more guidance counselors in Washington County public schools. There are now 49 counselors working full-time in middle and high schools and part-time counselors in the system's six elementary schools.

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That's not enough, according to two members of the Washington County Board of Education.

"I think each school does need somebody there full-time," said Mary L. Wilfong. "We need to be much more aware of the students."

School Board members B. Marie Byers and Wilfong advocate hiring more counselors, an expense not included in this year's budget.

Schools Superintendent Herman G. Bartlett Jr.'s spending proposal ranks 52 requests by order of importance. The items at the top of the list generally get funding first.

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The proposal also includes more than 130 other items that are not prioritized. One of those is a request from Director of Student Services Martha Roulette for three counselors at a cost of $104,478, including salaries and benefits.

Because the item is not a top priority, it isn't likely to be funded before the next budget year, which starts July 1, 2000, at the earliest. Wilfong and Byers want to make counselors a higher priority.

For them, the recent carnage at Columbine High School emphasized the need for counselors. On April 20, two teens went on a shooting spree at the Littleton, Colo., school, killing several students as well as themselves.

In the aftermath, many speculated that counselors could have spotted the shooters' distress and prevented the violence. "Those boys had to be overlooked," Wilfong said.

Teachers are too overwhelmed with lessons to counsel kids, according to her.

"There's so much curriculum that needs to be covered and so many students in the classroom," she said. "A teacher cannot stop what she's doing to work with one child."

The American School Counselors Association recommends a ratio of one counselor to every 250 students. Washington County's ratio is below the state average, according to Maryland State Department of Education figures.

In the county's high schools, the ratio is 1 to 324, according to Guidance Supervisor Joe Millward. At the middle school level, the ratio is 1 to 338, and the county's elementary school counselor ratio is 1 to 592.

Among the state's 24 jurisdictions, Washington County ranks between 12th and 14th at each level for its number of counselors, placing it squarely in the middle.

Millward said he wants three counselors hired in the next two years. "Two years ago, I would have said the need is not dire," he said. "But with concern over safety, the need becomes more dire."

With the current ratios, counselors would have to see two kids per school day to meet them all, according to Millward. "It's a pretty heavy load," he said. "It's difficult to get to know them all."

At the high school level, counselors often help students choose colleges and find scholarships. But in earlier grades they help shape behavior, which is where Wilfong sees the most need.

Although good behavior begins at home, schools should be able to respond to students in dysfunctional families, she said.

Last month, Wilfong and Byers brought up their request during a joint meeting with the county commissioners. "Just putting counselors on the job is not going to correct the situation," Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said later.

He said the problem needs a more comprehensive solution. "I don't have a strong feeling to just keep adding counselors. There needs to be a specific approach. Something else needs to go into that formula," he said.

School Board President Edwin Hayes said the money is better used cutting class sizes or on other resources. "Am I opposed to guidance counselors? No. But if we have extra resources, lets put them into teachers," he said.

But Byers and Wilfong remain advocates. "It should be one of the top priorities as we look at the budget next year," said Byers. "It's very necessary."

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