MESA, AZ — Efforts by one school district in the southeast Valley to counter Arizona's status as the worst in the nation when it comes to student-to-counselor ratio is already seeing a benefit.
Currently Arizona stands at 905 students for every counselor, so for the 2019-2020 school year, Mesa Public Schools took steps to reduce that ratio.
When Edison Elementary School counselor Jaime Clemens isn't in her office, she is covering a lot of ground on campus and working to connect with as many kids as possible.
"We have a lot of students who come to us with every issue you could think of and I can be that person to support them," said Clemens.
It is a task that until this school year was practically impossible. Clemens has spent 15 years splitting time between two elementary schools. She was managing a student-to-counselor ratio of 1300 to 1.
"You're dealing with a kid in crisis and you're giving them support and then you may not see them for four or five days," said Clemens. "To say, 'Okay, see you later,' that was really hard and I struggled with that and I know a lot of counselors did."
Arizona's high ratio is nearly double the national average of 455 students per counselor, and a far cry from the American School Counselor Association's recommendation of 250 to 1. This year, Mesa Public Schools hired 35 additional elementary school counselors through a combination of local funding, federal grants and budget reductions. The move allows roughly 30 schools to have a dedicated, full-time counselor on campus.
"The counselor is really the glue that holds it all together," said Dr. Michael Garcia, director of opportunity and achievement for MPS. "It's not entirely where we want to be yet, but it's a big step in the right direction."
The new hires mean a lighter load for counselors like Clemens.
"Now I have about 700 to 1, so we're almost half, which is huge," said Clemens. "Especially with everything going on in our society today, to identify these kids early, to give them support."
Managing 700 kids still has plenty of challenges, but Clemens says the consistency of serving one school, in a full-time capacity, can change lives.
"We do deal with suicide issues, we do deal with self-harm and when you can tell a kid, 'I'll be here, I need to see you tomorrow and tell me how it went,' or whatever we set up with a safety plan," said Clemens. "It's going to mean the world. I think the biggest joy that I'm seeing is I can say, 'I'll be here. I'm here every day.'"
Other districts are also making strides.
The Kyrene District hired 14 additional counselors this year and more could soon follow. At its next meeting on August 26, the state Board of Education is set to discuss how and when to administer $20 million in grant money set aside by the state legislature in May to help fund more school resource officers, social workers or counselors as part of the School Safety Program.