School system wants to invest more money, time in guidance counseling HARFORD COUNTY


In Harford schools, the title "guidance counselor" is something of a misnomer.

Counselors spend only half their time counseling students, offering advice on college, career paths or vocational training. The counselors have become jacks-of-all-trades out of necessity, some even forced to do clerical work.

Now, the Harford school system wants to hire more counselors who would actually do the job they're paid to do.

"There just aren't enough guidance counselors to go around," Superintendent Ray R. Keech said.

The school system, he said, may use money earmarked to hire additional teachers for more guidance counselors. The system, with a proposed operating budget of about $169 million, hasn't said how many additional counselors it would like to hire.

Next year's operating budget, which must be approved by the county executive and County Council, includes enough money for 4 1/2 new elementary school counselor positions and two high school counselors.

That would increase the total from 73 to 79.5, an average of one counselor for every 410 students.

Anne Ober, a school board member, said she worries high zTC school juniors and seniors are being shortchanged because many counselors are too busy to help students gather information they need to apply for scholarships or college.

"Over and over again, I'm told that guidance counselors can't get students their records and other information in a timely fashion," she said. "And that's from students who know how to work the system."

Guidance counselors need to devote more time to advising college-bound students and less to students' personal problems, Mrs. Ober suggested.

"There are places in the community where students can get help with emotional issues," she said, "but the community cannot help a child get into college."

High school counselors are particularly strapped this year because statewide graduation requirements change dramatically with the students who enter ninth grade next year, said Robert C. Williams, Edgewood High principal.

"Our guidance counselors are in the process of meeting with eighth-graders for orientation in the middle schools, and there is a lot of work there, explaining the new requirements," Mr. Williams said.

Ann Melody is one of three guidance counselors at the 963-student Edgewood High.

"You prioritize things and hope it all gets done," Ms. Melody said. "If there's a crisis, you drop everything and try to reschedule."

High school and middle school guidance departments each have a secretary but counselors still do a lot of clerical tasks, Ms. Melody said. Elementary counselors don't have a secretary.

High school counselors spend about half their time helping students choose careers, colleges or vocational paths.

The rest of their time is divided between crisis intervention -- helping a student with substance abuse, for example -- or other tasks, such as supervising tests and attending meetings about special education students.

Mr. Keech said hiring secretaries, who could handle tasks such as entering data, could free guidance counselors to work with students. Trained test technicians could administer tests, particularly the time-consuming Maryland Student Performance Program tests that score children on math, reading, citizenship and writing, the superintendent said.

Mr. Keech said another option is to give guidance counselors flexible hours, so they could work evenings when they need to meet with parents. That idea received support from John M. Mead, director of pupil services, which oversees guidance counselors.

"A lot parents have a hard time getting to school during the school day," Mr. Mead said. "It would be helpful on a periodic basis if one counselor worked a flex shift so they could be available in the evenings."

Just how many additional counselors are needed is open to debate. Ideally, each middle school would have three counselors and each high school four, the school system says. That would provide a counselor for each grade level and would mean hiring five more middle school counselors and nine more high school counselors.

Keith Williams, a school board member, said he wants to see a full-time counselor at each elementary school. Seven of the county's 29 elementary schools have part-time counselors. Most have one counselor.

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