SALT LAKE CITY — About six years ago, middle school and high school counselors in the Jordan School District were each responsible for more than 600 students.

It's a job that includes providing academic assistance and college preparation resources, as well as bullying, dropout and suicide prevention efforts — all of it on a one-on-one level with students.

"That's kind of an overwhelming task," said Jerry Payne, lead counselor at Riverton High School. "It was very difficult for us to see everybody that we needed to see."

Following a statewide push from education leaders, the district hired an additional 30 counselors between 2011 and 2014, reducing its student-to-counselor ratio by almost half, according to Nancy Karpowitz, a secondary counselor specialist for the district.

Fourteen of Utah's 41 school districts currently don't meet the state's required ratio for students to counselors, which is 1-to-350 or less. But the Jordan School District is now well below that mark.

Not only has that has lessened the workload for counselors, it has also improved academic outcomes and opportunities to help struggling students, Payne said.

"If we only see a student once a year, it's really hard to develop a relationship where they'll come in and share and really let us help them out," he said. "The more opportunities we have to see them, that gives us one more connection, one more chance to help them."

A report being discussed by the Utah State Board of Education this week shows Utah's middle and high schools overall are getting closer to having an adequate number of counselors for their students.

But the Jordan School District is one of only a few that have shown consistent progress in lowering the ratio of counselors to students in their schools over the past five years, according to the annual report.

"We're certainly close to that range," said Lillian Tsosie-Jensen, an education specialist over school counseling at the Utah State Office of Education. "There have been some districts that have done some amazing efforts in making sure they're meeting that ratio."

Students to counselors

Utah's 1-to-350 ratio requirement was established by the State School Board in 2009, requiring schools that don't meet that standard to develop a plan for how they intend to improve and come into compliance.

The American School Counselor Association, a nongovernmental professional development organization, recommends that schools have a 1-to-250 ratio, but state education leaders saw the 1-to-350 ratio as a "reasonable" ask for Utah schools, Tsosie-Jensen said.

This year, Utah's average counselor ratio for seventh through 12th grades is 1-to-350.97, which means the state still needs roughly 30 more counselors to meet its standard. That's down from a 1-to-357 ratio in 2012, when the state was 41 counselors short of the requirement, according to the report.

Thanks to supplemental funding for career and technical education programs, middle and high schools in the state are able to employ more counselors than elementary schools. But when considering all public schools kindergarten through 12th grade, Utah's student-to-counselor ratio is about 1-to-725, the third worst in the country, Tsosie-Jensen said, citing data from the association.

"For some of our schools that have these large ratios, it is so tough for these kids (because) their valued time with their counselor is so limited," she said. "I wish we had the educational funding to be able to have our ratios down to 1-to-250 in every school."

The districts with the largest needs fall along the Wasatch Front, where student populations are most dense and diverse. The Granite and Davis school districts are about two counselors away from reaching the state requirement, and the Salt Lake City and Provo districts are more than four counselors away, according to the report.

The Alpine School District, Utah's largest district with more than 33,000 students in seventh through 12th grades, is more than 10 counselors short of the standard.

Finding solutions

Adding personnel to counseling centers competes with a variety of funding needs, such as reducing class sizes and improving teacher pay. For that reason, schools resort to a variety of methods to meet their counseling needs.

The Alpine School District and many others use paid interns to support their programs, though interns are only counted as half a full-time equivalent employee on the state report. While interns aren't licensed and may have little experience, they can be a partial solution in light of funding constraints, according to Alpine spokesman David Stephenson.

"I think an intern brings a lot of immediate knowledge," Stephenson said. "It's nice to have a balance of veterans and (interns)."

The district has also offered counselors an extended-day contract, which allows them to meet with more students throughout a longer workday. Stephenson said the district has increased its number of counselors from 69 in 2011 to 91 last year, with plans to add another four counselors in the 2016-17 school year.

In rural districts, where student numbers and staff needs fluctuate, counselors may also double as coaches or bus drivers and be shared across several schools, according to Tsosie-Jensen.

"They wear many hats," she said.

Educators are hopeful that steady increases to the weighted pupil unit, Utah's formula for equalized per-student funding, will help meet various local needs, including school counseling.

Last year, the Utah Legislature approved a 4 percent increase — more than $104 million — to the flexible spending model, and this year, Gov. Gary Herbert has asked the Legislature for a 4.75 percent increase.

With extra funds available for districts to spend as they see fit, education leaders hope it will lead to counseling solutions, such as what has happened in the Jordan and Nebo school districts. Both districts were well above the state-mandated ratio several years ago but have improved significantly thanks to local leaders investing flexible dollars, Tsosie-Jensen said.

And the added counseling resources have produced various benefits, according to Karpowitz, who oversees middle and high school counseling efforts in the Jordan School District.

For example, counselors there had more time to analyze student data. In that effort, they identified high-achieving students, particularly among minority populations, who were not participating in concurrent enrollment and advanced placement courses. The counselors then extended personal invitations to the students to participate.

"We saw enrollment increase dramatically in those classes because of counselor efforts," Karpowitz said. The counselors "also have more time to serve on student support teams to analyze the data … so they can have the ability to do more targeted interventions."

Payne, who meets with students at Riverton High School almost daily, said bringing on additional counselors has helped greatly, but a 1-to-350 ratio shouldn't be seen as a stopping point.

"There's still tons to do," he said. "But it really has made a huge difference for us."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

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