In a marked departure from past practices, four county high schools will get an extra guidance counselor in the fall to help with increased enrollment.
Atholton, Centennial, Howard and Mount Hebron high schools will each get a fourth guidance counselor. The four schools have the county's highest enrollments, from at least 1,200 to as many as 1,400 students. In the past, each of the county's eight high schools had three guidance counselors, despite the rise or fall in student population.
"That was fine when most of the high schools were small and equal in size. [But] we were well over 1,200 students," said Karen Goins, a counselor at Centennial.
"The general ratio was over 400 students. In the fall, when we were working with seniors, that meant each of us had 100 or more seniors to help organize for the college application process," she said. "We try to do as personal of a job as we can, by writing as personal a recommendation. In the meantime, you have 300 other students who have a need."
Counselors at Mount Hebron High were in the same predicament.
"Just the day-to-day thing of returning phone calls and handling scheduling problems -- you just get swamped when you have a big caseload," said Paul "P. J." Kesmodel, a counselor at Mount Hebron. "You can't do anything extra. You're just trying to stay on top of it. All of it was really difficult."
Despite a recommendation from the American School Counselors Association that there be one guidance counselor to every 250 high school students, Howard County continues to have an average ratio of one counselor to every 375 high school students, according to Donald McBrien, the director of pupil services for county schools.
"Not many school systems at this point are reaching that target," Mr. McBrien said.
The county is now "acknowledging that larger schools certainly require more counselors than smaller schools," he said. "These four additional guidance counselors are reflective of that."
While a school system-sponsored committee on guidance services saw the need for more high school counselors -- and full-time counselors in elementary schools -- in a 1988 report, Mr. McBrien said his office has been unable to hire counselors because of budget problems.
"The school sizes have crept up and up and up, and we kept it at three per high school," Mr. McBrien said. "The awareness that that can't work and that we need more to provide any level of services for kids has been accepted by and articulated by [Superintendent Michael E.] Hickey."
Shortage takes toll
The staff shortage has taken its toll on students and guidance counselors, said Mr. Kesmodel. He added that many burned-out high school guidance counselors have requested transfers to middle schools because they did not want to deal with the tremendous workload anymore.
"It's been amazing to me that they've gone this long until they figured this was necessary," he said. "Obviously in the classroom, when you have more students, you have more teachers. They're really overworking the high school counselors."
But an additional guidance counselor at Atholton will not help reduce its counselor-to-student ratio much. The school is expected to enroll 1,400 students in the fall, which means that even with the fourth counselor, each of them will be responsible for 350 students.
"But it's a welcome addition," said Kevin Kelly, an Atholton counselor for 10 years.
"There's a lot that people don't realize that counselors do," he said.
He added that counselors are responsible for coordinating peer mediation programs, verifying grade-point averages, organizing the college application process and preparing students for standardized testing, such as the Scholastic Assessment Test.
"The workload is becoming more difficult. You're getting pulled in so many different directions. Counselors find themselves doing administrative work because the administrators are overworked," Mr. Kelly said.
Transitions a concern
Counselors said the extra help will enable them to work with ninth-graders, some of whom have problems making the transition to a high school atmosphere.
"There's a big push to work with high-schoolers and transition them from middle school," Mr. Kesmodel said. "We really haven't had the time.
"It's a tough thing. The grading philosophy and the things they do in middle school are different. Down there, they're graded on effort. In high school, they're graded on achievement," he said.
"There's a lot more demand for homework, study skills in high school," he added. "There's so much more distractions in high school, with extracurricular activities."