Picture a young lady named Ava in one of our local high schools. She is overwhelmed by her parents’ separation and difficulty at school. Ava begins to experience suicidal thoughts, then to inflict harm on herself. Her mother notices her wounds and takes her to the hospital. She learns that her daughter has never talked to school support personnel because she found it too difficult to get an appointment. How have we gotten to this point?
Recently I was fortunate enough to talk with a group of school counselors, psychologists, and social workers about their work serving the children of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. These folks are true heroes in our community, working long, difficult hours to ensure that our students’ social and emotional health is supported so they can be successful in school.
I was impressed by their passion and dedication but also troubled by what I heard. Most said they spent all day putting out fires, unable to see children unless there was a crisis. They spoke of training they’d had in preventative strategies which was being wasted as they found themselves constantly in reactive mode. They explained how lack of funding for support services resulted in enormous caseloads, decreasing the quality of their work.
The primary reason our support staff are stuck in reactive mode is that insufficient funding has left them woefully understaffed. Industry standards recommend ratios of 1:250 for school counselors and social workers. This year CMS students are supported by counselors at a ratio of 1:381 and by social workers at just 1:2957. The suggested ratio of psychologists per student is 1:500-700. Our current ratio is 1:2112.
Our student support services play an essential role in ensuring that our schools are safe, orderly, and focused on learning. When they are able to deliver the range of services they are trained to deliver, all of our students benefit.
- Interventions that improve students’ social, emotional, and decision-making skills also lead to stronger academic outcomes.
- Interventions that nurture engagement in school reduce dropout rates.
- Prevention and early intervention programs that serve at-risk students result in reduced special education referrals, suspensions, and grade retentions.
- Effective early childhood interventions decrease public expenditures for welfare assistance and criminal justice.
- Suicide rates have risen steadily for the last twenty years. Preventative models can provide students with coping skills to deal with pressure in a healthy way.
Whether or not we’re able to meet our students’ needs hinges on the willingness of our elected officials to prioritize the funding of education. After the Parkland, FL massacre, NC legislators convened a select committee on school safety. Unsurprisingly, they found that their own deep budget cuts had resulted in staffing ratios that did not adequately provide for students’ social and emotional needs. When the short session begins in May we’ll see whether legislators are willing to act on the committee’s recommendation to increase the number of support services personnel.
While we wait for progress at the state level, there’s also work to be done in Mecklenburg County. In this year’s budget, CMS Superintendent Wilcox is asking county commissioners for $4.4 million to hire 33 school counselors, 17 social workers, and 10 psychologists. The new hires would leave our schools well short of the recommended ratios but would represent a step in the right direction. The BOCC has to make tough decisions about how to allocate resources, but nothing is more important than making sure our county’s future taxpayers, workers, and citizens are socially and emotionally healthy.
Students today endure more pressure than ever, and their futures depend on our support. We need to enable our support services to use their training in preventative strategies. We need to put them in a position to build trusting relationships with children and nurture the coping skills our students so desperately need. Prioritizing the social and emotional well-being of our students will help us transform our schools into the safe and supportive learning environments that benefit us all.