Durango counselors say cut will hurt kids

High school will lose one of four employees in counseling department

Durango High School’s counseling department is decrying an imminent downsizing that it says will hobble the department and hurt upperclassmen.

At last week’s Durango school board, Sarah Wright, Sarah St. John, David Blau and Krista Brundage protested the district’s decision to cut the number of counselors from four to three at the start of the new school year. The district will not renew Brundage’s one-year contract.

Interim Superintendent Bill Esterbrook said that Brundage’s salary had been reallocated to a teaching position.

“With declining enrollment, you can only support so many staff,” he said. “One of the things we’ve tried to do is keep the number of students in each classroom down.”

At the meeting, the counselors said that the reallocation would cause the ratio of counselors to students to become unmanageable. Currently, with four counselors, the ratio is one counselor per 331 students. With three, Blau said, the ratio will grow to one counselor per 376 students – ranking DHS “in the lowest 9 percent for student counselor ratios in the entire state.”

“If you were running a business, I’m not sure you would want to admit that you were providing a service that puts you in the lowest 10 percent,” Blau said.

The district disputed the accuracy of the figures the counselors cited.

Esterbrook said Laine Gibson, the district’s chief financial officer, is currently predicting that about 1,070 students will enroll at DHS next year – making the counselor-to-student ratio more like one per 357 students.

The American School Counsel Association recommends a school counselor-to-student ratio of 1 to 250. As of 2009, only five states met the recommended ratio (Louisiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming). In 2008, before the recession, DHS employed five student counselors.

The high school is about to implement small learning communities in the ninth and 10th grades. Wright said that, “next year, we’ve been told that our focus is going to be on SLCs,” leaving the three counselors with “an unrealistic caseload,” in which the needs of upperclassmen would necessarily come second to the needs of underclassmen.

Wright said the four counselors already were strained by an onerous, increasingly competitive college admissions process.

“Typically, some of our top students wouldn’t have had a problem getting into Harvard,” Wright said. “Now that’s no longer the case. It’s just become so competitive. We have to make sure they’re prepared for the ACT, that they’re turning in their applications on time, that they have recommendations, that they know how to find financial aid and scholarships – they’re not widely publicized.

“And on every college application, a counselor has to write a two page evaluation of a student,” Wright said.

Blau said that the counselors are calling for a counselor dedicated to the college admissions process.

“With college admission, financial aid and scholarships more competitive than ever, devoting a specialist to college and career counseling is the responsible thing we are hoping to create and 9-R must do for our community,” Blau said.

Research shows that effective counseling has a direct impact on student behavior, the likelihood of students’ remaining in school and the rates at which students are admitted to college.

Andy Burns, member of the 9-R school board and director of admissions at Fort Lewis College, said the cutback in the high school’s counseling staff was “unfortunate. But while this is going to be a huge shift for our counseling office and our high school, it’s within the bounds of national norms.”

Though Esterbrook said he expects other student support systems to plug the gap, he allowed that the reduction to three counselors was “not ideal.”

“We’d like to have four or five – but we’d also like to have more math teachers and more science teachers,” he said. “There’s going to have to be a division of duties to make sure we’re serving our college-bound students as best we can. But these are very skilled professionals. Yes, I’m sure it will take some time and communication. But I feel very confident in the three counselors. They’ll be able to pull this off.”

cmcallister@durangoherald.com