School counselors' jobs are on the line in a big way in this year's Anchorage School District budget. The district proposes to cut 20 percent of them, when you include career resource advisers and graduation support coordinators. That's 28 of 132 counseling and advising positions districtwide.
The jobs of separate counselors for special education students -- those with disabilities -- would be eliminated as would all career resource adviser and graduation support coordinator positions.
Tracie Ashman, a Dimond High counselor, advises special education students. Jim Aronow is in charge of the Dimond special education program. They both say it's a mistake to make a cut this deep.
"We focus on behavior issues. . . . We also focus on what classes they are taking," Ashman said. "How are you going to make this class up? We focus a lot on graduation. Crisis intervention."
"All of our special ed students are going to be redistributed. And they're going to get lost," she said.
THE DISTRICT'S PLAN
The district is considering these and other cuts to make up a $25 million budget shortfall for the 2013-14 school year. The school board held one public hearing on the budget Monday and is scheduled to hold another hearing and vote Feb. 21.
As the district grapples with the budget challenge, school board members and the administration are looking at how Anchorage staffing levels for counselors, teacher aides and other positions compare to other districts -- and using that information to help guide what positions to cut.
Under Superintendent Jim Browder, the district aims to increase the time teachers spend in classrooms teaching at the same time it trims the overall workforce. The district will add teachers while reducing other positions.
The administration used a 2012 report on the Anchorage district by the Council of the Great City Schools, a national organization of the country's largest districts, to help accomplish that.
The report shows how staffing levels in the Anchorage district stack up against districts Outside.
It shows that Anchorage had a higher percentage of counselors than a comparable group of districts; it had more teaching assistants and tutors, more librarians and media specialists. It had fewer teachers and school administrators.
For example, the district had 1,023 teaching assistants and tutors a year ago, while the median at comparable districts was 719. The district had 135 guidance counselors while the median was 112.
The district is using what Browder calls "managed attrition" to lower staffing levels. Teaching assistant and tutor positions are being reduced as they come open, for example. But Browder has also said he expects layoffs as a result of budget reductions.
Many of the nearly 50 people who spoke at the first budget hearing last Monday were counselors, career resource advisers and their supporters, who argued that counselors, like teachers, are central to the district's mission.
Ashman was among them.
Counselors guide their students in academics, she said, but also provide emotional support.
"Since Christmas, the Anchorage School District has had three student suicides," she told the board. "My job is to intervene, and it's a critical role in student safety. The argument will be made that these crises can be handled through community resources. Unfortunately, crises cannot be scheduled, and this is very unrealistic."
Before some students can focus on learning, she said, other issues must be dealt with: no food at home, no sleep because of fighting parents, abuse.
Sometimes, she said, "we're the only support systems and advocates our students have."
Aronow, in charge of special education at Dimond, in an interview credited the relationships Ashman has developed with students, parents and teachers with helping Dimond achieve the best graduation rate in the district. Special education students at Dimond improved 10 percent to a 71 percent graduation rate, Ashman said.
Debbie Barker, a South High counselor, within the last two weeks intervened with a student who was considering suicide, she said in an email. The student now checks in with her daily as well as gets counseling outside school, she said. "I should mention that it's those 'little' check-ins that students need to feel connected to school. ..."
Barker notes the district's goal to increase graduation rates and decrease dropout rates. "The 'quality direct instruction from teachers' will not guide students toward those goals; counselors do," she said.
Browder said Friday that as a high school principal, "I absolutely depended on my guidance folks for a lot of support."
He read a list of "essential functions" for counselors that ran the gamut from involvement in student scheduling to conducting parent and community meetings. They have broad duties and a leadership role in schools.
But, he said, Anchorage's ratio of students per counselor is "substantially lower than anywhere else in the country."
"Unfortunately as resources become less and less you have to keep your money in the teachers in the classroom," Browder said.
CAREER RESOURCE ADVISERS
Unlike guidance counselors, career resource advisers do not have teaching certificates but they too advise students, specializing in getting them on track to jobs or more schooling after graduation. They help students find and apply for college or other training, and create portfolios needed to apply for college scholarships.
Amanda Schroeder, a Dimond graduate, told the school board, "I cannot stress how important (the Dimond career resource adviser) was for me." She received three college scholarships, she said.
At least one school board member -- Schroeder's grandfather, board member Don Smith -- was impressed. Eight career counselors spread out among the high schools generated $165 million in scholarships over five years, Smith said.
"They cost about $540,000 or so."
Smith said he will try to persuade the board to dip into savings a little deeper than is currently planned to keep the career resource advisers.
HOW MANY NEEDED?
No one disputes that counselors are valuable. The question is what's the most effective number given the budget. District budget director Mark Foster said in Anchorage high schools there are on average 251 students for each member of the counseling staff. Under the proposed budget, there would be 310 students per counseling staff member.
The American School Counselor Association has weighed in.
"In the best case scenario, they are recommending 250 to 1," said Kris Forrester, district coordinator for counseling. But the reality is that U.S. school districts average 375 to 1 and higher, Forrester said. Alaska's rate is 404 to 1, she said.
In her last job in New Mexico, she counseled 400 students, Forester said. In that kind of situation, a counselor has to schedule activities or they won't get done, she said.
"There are different approaches. I think we'll probably have to look at what do we want it to look like when it rolls out," she said. "All things are possible to do well if you look at it through a different lens."
Browder said after the budget becomes final, the plan is to pull together all the counselors and sort out their essential functions. "It might be now we're doing a handful of things we don't need to do because they're not adding value."
School board president Jeannie Mackie said she wants more discussion and information from the administration about counselors.
"What is the best practice? Where is it that the numbers prove if we put more resources into counselors that we're going to see the return on investment?" she asks.
The answers are due back before the budget returns to the board for a vote later this month.
Reach Rosemary Shinohara at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4340.
By ROSEMARY SHINOHARA