As schools cut budgets, strains on counselors grow

Roslyn Wagner's tone shifts from cheerful to concerned as she looks through the grades of the teenage boy seated before her.

"There's no reason for this," the guidance counselor tells him.

Just three years ago, Blake Mankin scored at the highest possible level on Florida's standardized assessment in math. He could be in honors math classes, but had to repeat algebra. He's just a freshman, but his grades are so low that if he doesn't raise them, he could be in danger of not graduating from Cooper City High School.

"What happened?" Wagner asks.

He admits that he hasn't worked hard enough.

It is 10:02 a.m. and already a group of students await Wagner's attention. The 15-year-old boy has to get back to his gym class. They both glance at the clock.

In all, Wagner has to register 600 freshmen in this high school in a suburb north of Miami for their next year's classes, and help another 200 12th grade students through college applications and graduation. There are recommendation letters to write, crises to handle. On the one hand, she must monitor low performing students; on the other, she must shepherd a bevy of meticulous students at this A-rated school vying to get into the nation's most prestigious colleges.

There's just not enough time — but the boy is there, and he needs her help.

Wagner takes an extra minute.


The caseload wasn't always this high; before Wagner used to handle just one grade. But two years ago, one of the school's four guidance counselors retired and the Broward County School District — the nation's sixth largest, now facing a shortfall of nearly $172 million — hasn't replaced her. That left Wagner with the 600 students she previously guided and a portion of the retired counselor's caseload, divided up among the three counselors that remain.

"It's too many kids," Wagner says with a sigh.

She's far from alone in her predicament. The average public school counselor in the United States has 457 students. In Michigan, the average counselor had 759 students in 2008-09. In California, it was 814.

"States and districts have been hit really hard by budget cuts and the recession," said Jill Cook, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association. "There are positions being cut and jobs lost."

One UCLA researcher calculated that public high school counselors spend about 38 minutes each year per student. A Public Agenda survey of first-year college students conducted found that more than half felt their counselors treated them like "just another face in the crowd."

The same survey found that those with little meaningful interaction with counselors were less likely to go directly from high school to post-secondary education — an important predictor of future college completion.

Researchers think these high counselor-to-student ratios are partially to blame for why more students don't go on to graduate from college. A recent study from Harvard University, for example, cited the nation's weak guidance counseling system as one of the reasons why more students aren't making a smoother transition into post-secondary education and careers, and noted that many other developed counties dedicate significant more time and resources to counseling.

"Parents get angry when you don't do more," said Robert Bardwell, past president of the New England Association for College Admissions Counseling. "And it's sad because we should be doing more."

To cope, Wagner runs her office like a sort of triage center: She has a brochure, book or online resource for nearly every student concern. Scholarships? Check. Requirements to enter a state college? Check. Trouble deciding what career path to choose? She's got a book on that, too.

Even with her limited time, Wagner's impact is noticeable. Banners to colleges where students have been accepted hang from the walls — this year's graduating class includes students going to state colleges and prestigious Ivy League universities. Parents and students send her letters of thanks. "It has been an amazing turnaround," one parent wrote.  "He is now on the honor roll (all A's) and seems happier than ever and is planning on college."

She advises her students with the candor of a strict supervisor and the concern of a caring mother. On a recent weekday, she is scheduled to help register about 20 freshmen for next year's classes. For many, it's the first time she's meeting one-on-one with them. They're pulled out of a gym class and wait to be called in from a small lobby outside her office.

Mankin, whose talents are evident but whose grades have flagged, is among them.

What does he want to be when he gets older? How does he plan to get there?

"The first thing is getting a high school diploma, because then you'll get a better job," she explains.

Mankin doesn't quite know what he wants to do. He's thought of something with cars or maybe an invention; a math teacher who saw him stick up for another student who was being teased recently suggested he might make a good lawyer someday, and the idea is appealing.

But since middle school he's lagged behind in classes. He says school stopped seeming relevant to him. He started hanging out more, going to the beach or movies with friends.

"I don't think I ever saw a counselor in middle school," he says.

Mankin says he would like to study at Florida State University, where his mother attended, but he'd need to get his GPA up to at least a 3.3 to attend. Wagner goes through scenarios that could bring him there. He still has three years to turn things around.

"It's doable," she says.

"How do you study?" Wagner asks.

"Read," Blake replies.

"You can't just read," says Wagner. "You have to memorize."

She takes him through a list of study techniques. She shows him how even just handing in homework assignments could dramatically improve his grades.

"You know what you have to do, right?" Wagner asks.

The boy nods.

Wagner calls in the next student.


The work is never finished. This summer, Wagner will go to the office for a day every couple of weeks, registering new students for next year's classes. In the past, she's been paid for this, but after years of budget cuts, she is now a summer volunteer. She does not complain. "This is my school," she says, simply.

Nor does she complain that there was no time to leave her post for lunch on a recent day. She reached into her desk for a jar of peanut butter and made a sandwich.

"When you love what you do, you don't mind," she says. "But you do get tired."

It is not unusual for Wagner to bring college recommendations and other work home. While her husband reads or watches the news, she'll work at a table nearby.

Does she feel like she is able to meet the needs of every student? Yes. But is she as effective as before, when she had fewer students?

Not really. "You don't have that personal contact," Wagner says.

Families, often reacting to the high caseloads assigned to public school counselors, are increasingly hiring private counselors to help their children get ahead. And the persistent struggles linked to the recession — parents losing jobs, foreclosures that have displaced families for their homes — mean many children are coming to school with a host of worries they didn't have before.

The nationwide counselor-to-student ratio hasn't risen in recent years, but Cook said the numbers can lag a year or two. The real picture is clear in individual states and districts, like Broward. Schools throughout Broward have proposed further reducing the number of guidance counselors in light of this year's budget cuts. Spokeswoman Nadine Drew said the guidance cuts are in part an effort to avoid teacher layoffs.

For Wagner, what were once one-on-one meetings with students are now sometimes handled in large groups.

She's been a counselor for nearly 15 years; she took the job after directing a middle school production of "Grease." At the time, she was working as a school speech pathologist, and through the play, built a close relationship with the students, who often confided in her.

"You need to see your counselor about this," she often found herself telling them.

"When enough of those situations came up," Wagner says, "I said, 'I want to be a counselor.'"

Notwithstanding the cutbacks, it was "the best decision I ever made." she says.


Jessica Hujber, a tall girl with long black hair and a schedule filled with advanced placement and honors classes, follows Malkin into Wagner's office. She seeks help in putting together a plan packed with tough courses, one that is likely to gain her admission into a prestigious college.

Hujber has clearly done her homework: She knows which colleges want more math or science, and which prefer a well-rounded curriculum. Her dream school is MIT, which accepts just 10 percent of its applicants; she wants to become a doctor or engineer.

She doesn't let the pressure affect her, but she does worry about how she'll stand out among other college applicants. Should she dual enroll at the local college while in high school? Perhaps do a research project abroad one summer?

"It's just really competitive," Hujber says. "Any kid could do well in challenging classes."

Wagner counsels her on what she can do to prepare, like applying now for scholarships, doing extracurricular activities and developing leadership skills.

"They want rigor, they want good grades, and they want a resume," Wagner tells her.

Hujber jots down some of the ideas on the palm of her hand with a blue pen. They agree to a schedule for the upcoming years and Wagner calls in the next student, a skinny girl with bright pink nails and a rainbow-colored bracelet.

In the course of the day, Wagner will see highly driven students like Hujber who sign up for extra appointments, and others who could easily be lost in the shuffle, without a guidance counselor's attention.

"You do the best you can," she says. "It's a lot of work. The outside world doesn't realize it."

As the final bell rings, Wagner eyes a stack of paper she has to organize. There are phone calls to return and a recommendation letter to write. Impossible to finish in a day, it's work she'll take home again tonight.