The school counselor pipeline is broken. Can new federal money fix it?
SODUS, N.Y. — Daniel Bennett’s office at Sodus Intermediate School is a haven for kids in crisis.
When fourth, fifth or sixth graders here are fed up, ready to fight, or exhausting their teacher with their unfocused energy, they can visit Bennett’s office to jump on the mini trampoline, bounce on the balance ball chairs, or strum out their frustration on one of the guitars that hang on one wall.
Sometimes, the kids arrive angry, outraged at how they’ve been treated by a classmate or teacher; other times they show up sad, or overwhelmed. This spring morning, a boy came in crying, complaining he’d been treated unfairly during a game in gym class. He told Bennett he didn’t understand the game’s rules and was punished for breaking them.
Bennett, a doctoral student at Roberts Wesleyan College here on a year-long internship, helps each student identify their feelings, and validates them. While the student calms down, they might play a board game, shoot darts or mess with fidget toys.
On this day, though, the boy wasn’t interested in toys or games. He just wanted to talk — and be listened to.
“Sometimes you need to sit and be quiet,” Bennett said later.
Besides Bennett, Sodus Intermediate has two licensed psychologists on staff. But one functions as a school counselor, responsible for academic advising in addition to mental health counseling. Even with Bennett on board, it can be hard to meet the needs of all the kids and teachers in this low-income, rural district — especially since the pandemic.
“There’s a lot of trauma, and there are only so many hours in a day to meet with kids,” Bennett said.
Rates of anxiety and depression among youth and adolescents have reached record highs across the country, with the surgeon general calling kids’ declining mental health the “defining public health crisis of our time.” Yet, nationwide, there was just one school psychologist for every 1,127 K-12 students in 2020-21, a ratio well below the 500 students to one psychologist recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists. The shortages of school social workers and counselors are just as bad.
These deficits are due both to a lack of funding and a lack of providers. Some schools know they need more mental health providers, but they can’t afford to hire them. Others have the budget to hire, but can’t find a qualified provider. Colleges just aren’t producing enough of them, and low pay pushes some would-be school counselors into private practice or other specialties.
Now, spurred by an influx of federal funds, schools and colleges are undertaking an unprecedented effort to recruit and retain more school mental health providers. Districts are offering stipends to grad student interns, providing mentors to new hires, and creating online communities for isolated rural providers. Colleges are creating new programs to introduce high schoolers to school mental-health careers and launching virtual graduate degrees to attract busy professionals and far-flung students.
Bennett’s position at Sodus Intermediate, a 45-minute drive from Rochester, is funded through one of a pair of federal grant programs that received a huge funding increase in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, passed last year in response to the May 2022 mass shooting at Robb Elementary, in Uvalde, Texas. The grant programs are also part of President Joe Biden’s effort to double the number of school-based mental health professionals.
Since December, the U.S. Department of Education has awarded $286 million to 264 grantees in nearly every state to boost the training and hiring of school mental health professionals, particularly those from marginalized racial and ethnic backgrounds. The agency estimates that the infusion of cash will prepare more than 14,000 new providers. And that’s just a portion of the $1 billion funding increase, with the remaining grants to be doled out over the next five years.
Schools also spent an estimated $2 billion in federal pandemic recovery dollars to hire mental health professionals — an investment that helped increase the number of social workers by nearly 50 percent, and the number of school counselors and psychologists by 10 percent, according to the education department.
Nationwide, there is just one school psychologist for every 1,127 K-12 students, a ratio well below the 500 students to one psychologist recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists
Bennett, the son of a school psychologist, said he feels drawn to the mental health field. He briefly considered a career in law, but settled on psychology after working in an inpatient clinic for children and adolescents after college.
“There were cases that would break your heart,” Bennett said. “But it kept pulling me back.”
But with one week remaining on his internship, he’s not yet sold on a career in school counseling. He’s worked in several settings since starting his program in clinical and school psychology in 2020, and found interest in them all.
“I’m open to seeing where the wind takes me,” he said.
At lunchtime, Bennett hurries to the cafeteria to collect four rambunctious fifth grade boys for a skills group. Trays in hand, they race down the hall to Bennett’s office, scarfing up tater tots directly into their mouths.
The topic today is listening. The group starts with a silly song about being a “whole body listener,” drawing or coloring what they hear or think as they listen.
When the song ends, Bennett asks the students to describe their drawings and then share which classmate did the best job of listening while they spoke.
Josh holds up a picture of a guy playing with his ears, and Bennett asks what it represents.
“Hear teachers talk,” Josh answers.
“And who was the best listener?” Bennett asks.
“You,” Josh says. “Your eyes were on me, and you weren’t tapping the floor.”
Matt, who is dressed head-to-toe in Spider-man attire, jumps in to defend himself. “The way I focus and calm down is by fidgeting,” he explains.
Tim goes next. Licking a red popsicle, he holds a drawing of an all-green face in front of his own. “I drew me a new face so I can make more friends,” he says.
The phone rings, interrupting the sharing. It’s a teacher who wants to know if she can send a student who is in crisis. Bennett says he has five minutes after the skills group ends — after that he’s got to meet with another teacher.
He hangs up the phone and turns back to Tim. “What about this face will help you make friends?” he asks.
“It’s green,” Tim responds.
“And who was the best listener?” Bennett asks.
“Apollo — he was listening with his ears,” Tim says.
When the session ends, Bennett returns the boys to their classrooms, and picks up the student who the teacher had called about. As they walk to Bennett’s office, the student says that he accidentally squirted water on his teacher’s phone, and she smacked him on the arm. “Now I’m mad all day,” the student says.
They head back to Bennett’s office, where the student calms down by strumming on a guitar. Bennett asks the boy what type of music is his favorite (country, he says), and tells him he used to play bass in a high school band; he had hair down to his shoulders. They talk about the recent evaluation the student received for special education services, and the boy confides that he’s started a new medication.
When five minutes are up, Bennett tells the student it’s time to go. As the boy leaves, Bennett asks what one thing he could do to get through class.
“Ignore my teacher,” the student says.
“Let it wash off you like water,” Bennett says, encouragingly, before rushing to meet another teacher.
Rural districts tend to have a harder time recruiting school psychologists, said Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, director of policy and advocacy for the National Association of School Psychologists. There are fewer training programs near rural districts than near urban ones, and graduates often look for work close to where they’re trained, she said.
But even if more graduates were willing to relocate, the number of students graduating from programs in psychology, counseling and social work isn’t keeping pace with districts’ growing demand for mental health services. Opening up the programs to more students isn’t really an option, either — there aren’t enough faculty or site supervisors to train them, according to Strobach.
Another reason schools struggle to recruit and retain mental health providers is in part because of the low pay. (The average salary for a school psychologist is about $88,000; for clinical and counseling psychologists it’s $103,000; industrial psychologists, who work in businesses and organizations, earn an average of $145,000.)
Since December, the U.S. Department of Education has awarded $286 million to 264 grantees in nearly every state to boost the training and hiring of school mental health professionals, particularly those from marginalized racial and ethnic backgrounds.
In addition, schools often ask providers, especially school counselors, to take on administrative duties, like test proctoring and cafeteria and bathroom monitoring.
While counselors expect to perform some duties beyond their professional specialty, asking them to do too much “pulls them away from the work they’re passionate about” and contributes to counselor turnover, said Eric Sparks, deputy executive director of the American School Counselor Association.
New York is doing better than some states in hiring and retaining school psychologists: Its ratio is 1:662. But before the six districts received the grant, only 5 of 19 schools had a social worker on staff, Lustica said.
With the help of the federal dollars, the districts have been able to hire roughly 20 interns in psychology, social work and counseling each year for the past four years. They pay them a stipend and mileage — a rarity in graduate internships — and place them in interdisciplinary groups that meet twice a month to review cases and share ideas on how to approach them.
By paying their interns, and nurturing a spirit of collaboration among them, the districts hope to convince them to return to work in a school when they graduate. So far, that strategy seems to be working: More than three-quarters of former interns have been hired into high-need districts in New York, Lustica said.
Boston Public Schools is also using stipends to attract potential job candidates — particularly those that match the district’s demographics. Though Boston has had more success recruiting than many districts, it’s struggled to hire bilingual providers and those from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds, said Andria Amador, the district’s senior director of behavioral health services.
“Trying to enter a field that makes you work for free for two years is impossible for some of our economically disadvantaged populations,” Amador said.
“Trying to enter a field that makes you work for free for two years is impossible for some of our economically disadvantaged populations.”
Andria Amador, senior director of behavioral health services, Boston Public Schools
Other recipients of the federal grants are trying different approaches. In Texas, a “grow your own” program is paying teachers to pursue degrees in counseling; in Wisconsin, a new virtual master’s program is reaching Native students on reservations located hours from a college campus.
Leah M. Rouse, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee who is helping lead the effort to recruit Indigenous students, said that colleges used to be reluctant to offer online programs, worrying quality would suffer. But “the pandemic showed we can do quality training and supervision with remote instruction,” she said.
Nevada, which in 2021 had just one school psychologist for every 2,000 students, has started recruiting in high school, offering a course on school mental health professions that lets high schoolers earn college credit. Its colleges have begun training “school psychology assistants” to take over some of the administrative duties placed on licensed school psychologists, freeing them to spend more time with students.
And in Virginia, educators are tackling high turnover among isolated rural providers through an online professional development program that connects the providers to colleagues in other schools.
Back at Sodus Intermediate, Bennett is running late for his meeting with Jennifer Gibson, a longtime special education teacher with a challenging class. But when he arrives in the cafeteria, Gibson isn’t there. She shows up a minute later, saying she got caught up disciplining kids.
Bennett and Gibson meet fairly often to discuss strategies for dealing with difficult student behaviors, he says. Their sessions typically start with venting, and this day is no exception.
“I love the community in schools — getting to eat lunch with colleagues, being surrounded by youngsters. But it would be very hard to support myself on the entry level salaries in this setting.”
Daniel Bennett, doctoral student on a year-long internship as a school counselor
Gibson tells Bennett she’s relieved that a particularly disruptive student has left her class, and frustrated that he was put there to begin with.
“He would have been better served elsewhere, don’t you think?” she asks Bennett.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I hear your frustration.”
Then, they move on to problem-solving. Bennett asks Gibson what she was disciplining students for.
“Just kids being sassy,” she says. One student, in particular, wouldn’t settle down after lunch.
“What do you think was the reason?” Bennett asks.
Gibson speculates that it might have been the change in seasons — the warmer weather always makes transitions harder.
Then Gibson remembers that the student hadn’t eaten; he’d hit a kid on the bus and spent the lunch period in suspension. She’d forgotten to give him his usual “brain break” after lunch, too.
“So that’s my fault,” she says, guiltily.
“There’s no blaming or shaming here,” Bennett reminds her. They discuss how Gibson can ensure the student gets his energy out before returning to class after lunch.
At one point in the meeting, Gibson asks Bennett when his last day is. Next Thursday, he tells her.
“That’s awful,” she says. “I wish we could pay to hire you.”
More than three-quarters of former interns have been hired into high-need districts in New York via a federal grant program.
Stephen Humbert, Bennett’s supervisor and the school’s practicing psychologist, said having interns in the building two days a week helps him support more students and teachers. It also exposes staff to fresh ideas and theories, he said.
But Bennett, who starts a new internship at a healthcare organization in Pennsylvania later this month, now doubts he’ll settle in a school when he finishes his doctoral program next spring. With $150,000 in student debt, he’ll need to find something a little more lucrative.
“I love the community in schools — getting to eat lunch with colleagues, being surrounded by youngsters,” Bennett wrote in an e-mail on the last day of his internship. “But it would be very hard to support myself on the entry level salaries in this setting.”
This story about federal grants for counseling was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
The post The school counselor pipeline is broken. Can new federal money fix it? appeared first on The Hechinger Report.