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Investing in Better School Counseling Will Help Struggling Students Recover From Multiple Crises

As students return to school — and empty classrooms, cafeterias, and gymnasiums come to life — a sense of unease has replaced the typical excitement marking the start of the academic year. Record levels of anxiety and depression, years of strain from the pandemic on students’ social and academic development, and a significant drop in college enrollment are all signs that the nation’s students are in crisis.

Philanthropy has eagerly and generously aided in the fight to heal schools and help students. However, one essential piece of this recovery effort remains overlooked and unaddressed: school counseling.

Counselors are vital to healthy, equitable, and effective schools. They serve as mental-health lifelines, providing critical short-term support and referrals to long-term care. They also guide students through the complex college-admission and financial-aid process. Beyond individual students, counselors shape school communities by understanding and advocating for student needs and offering resources and expertise on nonacademic issues. These services are especially important in schools that primarily educate students of color in low-income communities.

Yet the profession lacks the support and attention it desperately needs. Counselors’ effectiveness has been severely limited by an avalanche of administrative duties, widespread misunderstanding of the role, including little support from principals, parents, administrators, and policy makers, and a lack of professional-development opportunities.

A 2021 survey of 1,060 counselors across America, which we conducted at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, found that the pandemic exacerbated the problems many counselors already faced.

All this is a far cry from the promise of the late 1950s when the National Defense Education Act was passed to improve America’s ailing education system in the wake of the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite. Along with providing student loans and funding science curricula, the legislation included millions of dollars to hire more counselors and create training institutes for the field. In less than a decade, the percentage of students with access to counseling increased from 5 percent to more than 80 percent. With that growth, drop-out rates fell and college enrollment increased.

Today, roughly 118,000 counselors are employed in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools. But the importance of their role has largely been forgotten. The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER, created by Congress through its three major Covid-19 relief bills, provided nearly $200 billion to school districts nationwide, but included no targeted support for school counseling.

While philanthropy can’t fill the gap alone, it can bring far greater attention to the important role counselors play in schools. At a time when grant makers are looking for the best ways to help students thrive during this era of school shootings, racial violence, and the Covid pandemic, helping to rebuild the counseling profession and attract diverse and well-trained people to the field should be a priority. Here’s how to get started:

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Improve recruitment and training. The counseling field is persistently short staffed. During the pandemic, schools struggled to hire enough mental-health providers, and many are still facing counselor shortages as the new school year begins. Men and people of color are also significantly underrepresented in a field dominated by white women. Those who are in counseling jobs report feeling unprepared for their roles at a time when the challenges confronting students are mounting.

Grant makers have historically supported efforts to bring more diverse and qualified teachers and principals to schools and can draw on that experience to expand the school-counseling work force. This should include directing gifts to universities to expand their counselor-training programs and provide opportunities similar to student teaching.

The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline Initiative is a good example of a program that could be adapted to the counseling field. It not only recruits aspiring principals, but also partners with school districts to improve training options. A similar approach for school counseling might include directing funds to graduate programs to create residencies for counselors in training, offering scholarships for educators who want to pursue graduate degrees in counseling, and funding expanded professional-development opportunities.

Support statewide efforts. A few states, backed by philanthropic and government funds, are already showing what a comprehensive approach to improving and expanding the counseling field can look like, but these efforts need to be copied nationwide.

In Indiana, the Lilly Endowment’s Comprehensive Counseling Initiative has awarded nearly $50 million in grants to school districts across the state and to universities to support the development of school-counseling-training programs. An important element of this effort is investing in principal-preparation programs that ensure future school leaders understand school counselors’ roles and how to support them effectively.

In Colorado, the School Counselor Corps Grant Program provides funding for schools to hire counselors and establish professional-development opportunities. It has had a major impact on Colorado schools, including raising on-time graduation rates, lowering dropout rates, and saving the state $20 for every $1 invested in the effort.

Grant makers can partner with school districts and state governments throughout the country to encourage similar efforts. More school districts are starting to use the federal ESSER money to hire additional counselors, but not to invest in training them. Philanthropy can augment those funds by providing school districts with resources to create better counseling programs.

Support nonprofits that work with school districts. Foundations are sometimes hesitant to give directly to school districts out of concern that funds will get lost or misused. One solution is to give instead to nonprofits that manage the funds and provide leadership guidance to school districts that want to expand counseling programs. Such a strategy was used to improve arts education in Boston. Grant makers directed their giving to EdVestors, a nonprofit that oversaw the arts effort, which has since made quality arts education the norm in the city.

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A similar strategy could be deployed to revamp counseling programs in school districts across the country. Grant makers could partner with local nonprofits to hire counselor coaches and facilitators to develop and put in place updated counseling programs in every school.

For thousands of students across the country, no relationship is more important than the one they share with their school counselor. Philanthropy has a special opportunity to support these vital relationships as billions of dollars in federal investments reach schools — but not the counselors who help students succeed in multiple ways. With a generation of students in crisis, the nation can no longer afford to ignore this valuable resource.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a partnership the Chronicle has forged with the Associated Press and the Conversation to expand coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. The three organizations receive support for this work from the Lilly Endowment. The AP is solely responsible for the content in this article.