VALDOSTA — Erin Gaskins became a counselor because she wanted to be at the frontlines of helping young people.
A former mental health therapist, she said she made the switch to school counseling because the job would reach more students.
She said she loves her job. With an average of 430 students assigned to her every year, she worries some students are slipping through the cracks.
“We don’t have enough counselors at our school,” said Gaskins, who works in the Valdosta High School counseling department. “We only have four but we have to make it work.”
VHS isn’t the only school facing an issue of counselor shortages. It’s a problem that expands across the district, county, state and nation. It affects schools across the SunLight Project coverage area of Valdosta, Dalton, Thomasville, Moultrie, Milledgeville and Tifton.
The recommended ratio is 250 students for every counselor, according to the American School Counselor Association.
However, state guidelines recommend one counselor for every 450 students, and the average is 484:1, according to an ASCA study conducted last fall.
Though some Georgia school districts maintain a much lower ratio than the state recommendation and average, most — including Valdosta City Schools — fall close to the Georgia recommendation.
Valdosta City Schools has a ratio of 455:1, similar to Baldwin County School District’s 472:1, Colquitt County School District’s 475:1, Dalton City School District’s 500:1 and Lowndes County School District’s 532:1.
These high ratios can be daunting because counselors are already tasked with not only providing mental and emotional support but also academic services and post-secondary information.
"School counselors are probably the most undervalued employees in public education," said Jennifer Phinney, director of school support at Dalton City School District. "They do work that no one ever knows about."
In its nine schools, Dalton has 16 counselors and one of the highest ratios of the SunLight region.
They help with social and emotional issues, advise on college and career plans, provide sexual abuse prevention, drug abuse prevention and anti-bullying information. They also assist with testing in their schools.
"Everything in our schools that aren't the core academics, much of that falls onto school counselors,” Phinney said.
Donna Mitchell, director of guidance at Colquitt County High School, said Colquitt County counselor statistics make it harder to reach every student.
”A high ratio means that we can’t get as much one-on-one time with students that we need but we find a way to make it work,” Mitchell said.
Colquitt County School District counseling departments are always looking to improve while also utilizing the few resources available.
With state funding low and ratio high, counselors often depend on other counselors in neighboring school districts and the internet for ideas.
“Especially with our ratio, we have to ask how can we make this a little bit better for the students to help meet all their needs because the resources may not be here and that is the challenging part about our job,” Mitchell said.
The 450:1 recommendation is also how the state decides funding for each school district.
A school district must have at least 450 students in a program — kindergarten, primary elementary (1-3), upper elementary (4-5), middle school and high school — to receive funding for one counselor.
At every additional 450 students, a program will receive funding for another counselor. For example, 900 students would give the program two counselors, 1,350 would fund three, etc.
Lowndes County School System has the highest ratio in the SunLight area. Sandra Wilcher, director of Student Support Services, said the school system has 20 counselors and gets state funding for 20.57.
The school system does not allot any local funds to hiring counselors.
“We utilize our funding completely for counselors,” Wilcher said. “(Funding) is a legislative and state department decision. I think the need of counselors grows every year as we see the scope of student needs expand.”
Sometimes — and it is the case for most SunLight region school districts — schools exceed state funding for counselors and put more local funds toward more hires.
Dalton uses some local funds to support 16 counselors because the state only provides enough funding for 15.41 counselors.
Baldwin County School District has 11 counselors total, which costs $844,000. Of that, $383,000 is provided by the state, while the rest is covered by local funds.
According to the Baldwin County earnings sheet, the state gives the school system funds for 9.81 counselors.
Baldwin County’s elementary schools have had the same amount of counselors for some time — one per each of the two primary schools and upper elementary schools. Last year was the first year both the middle and high school had one per grade.
Valdosta City Schools only receives state funds for 16.53 counselors, so the district uses additional funds to pay 18 counselors.
“Even though I think our local system supports counselors and sees the need, I don’t think it’s at the state or federal level,” Gaskins said. “Until it’s at that level, we’re not going to really see a change.”
The Thomasville City School District, Thomas County School District and Whitfield County School District have ratios below the state recommendation at 314:1, 266:1 and 403:1, respectively.
The Thomas County School District, which had the closest ratio to the recommended ASCA ratio in the SunLight region, budgeted more than $1.1 million for salaries and benefits of school counselors for the 2018-19 school year.
The amount includes resources and supplies used in the counseling program, said Dr. Lisa Williams, Thomas Schools superintendent.
According to an earnings sheet, it appears Thomas County has put more local funds into hiring additional counselors than the 10.22 they are afforded by state money — the district has 21 total counselors.
Williams said counselors in the Thomas County School System strive to make the greatest possible impact on the student body, while also noting the importance and aiming for a lower student-to-counselor ratio.
“Research shows that high school students who have greater access to their school counselors are far more likely to graduate, which proves how vital the school counselor's role is to our students, schools, system and community,” Williams said.
Just across the city line sits Thomasville City School District, which has seven counselors. The state gives the district funding for 5.11 counselors.
Compared to other nearby districts, Thomasville has a decent ratio — one that isn’t much higher than ASCA’s recommended amount but also not above the state’s 450:1.
A 314:1 ratio is still challenging, though.
Laine Reichert, Thomasville City School District superintendent, said when the ratio is too big, counselors are restricted in their ability to engage every student and often have to choose activities that have the greatest impact, rather than provide the full range of services.
"The value of counselors in schools cannot be measured,” Reichert said. “They wear so many different hats and fulfill a myriad of needs throughout the year. Often, they are the glue that hold students, teachers, administrators and parents together through the resources and services that they provide.”
Whitfield County School District, which neighbors the Dalton City School District, isn’t quite as close to the ASCA recommendation, but its 32 counselors exceed the state recommendation.
Whitfield County funds several more counselors than the 25.46 funded by the state.
Greg Bailey, principal of Eastbrook Middle School, calls counselors "essential."
"We would be very hard-pressed to survive without them," he said. "(The children) can be dealing with very difficult issues at home. The counselors are the first line of defense."
There is a job to do and issues to face no matter how many counselors are under one school’s roof. Utilizing counselors in the most efficient way can help, even with shortages.
The BRIDGE (Building Resourceful Individuals to Develop Georgia’s Economy) Law requires all Georgia school systems to help students develop graduation plans and attend regularly scheduled career advisement appointments.
At Lowndes County, Wilcher said the school system is promoting career paths and post-secondary opportunities from day one.
“We start working on career guidance in the first grade,” Wilcher said. “They are very specific to each grade. We are a college-prep system, so we are directing all of our students in that direction so they know exactly what to do when that time comes.”
Natasha Davis, a school counselor at Lakeview Primary School in the Baldwin County School District, does something similar on her own.
Davis is a counselor for students in grades K-2, but she said it’s important to start talking about careers with students as early as possible.
“Even though they don’t officially start planning for colleges and careers until they get to middle or high school, we try to expose them to careers here,” Davis said. “I consult with the teachers to work on career awareness lessons.”
Dalton High School counselor Julie Gallman said the school is coordinating events specific to graduation planning and post-secondary information, including a senior seminar.
It will serve as a reminder, Gallman said, to seniors that now is the time to finish college applications, take or retake college entrance exams and get letters of recommendation completed.
“We are getting into the heavy season of college applications, and that requires a lot of one-on-one with the kids because we are basically teaching them how to advertise themselves to colleges,” Gallman said. “That's in addition to the college and career counseling we do for all the other grades."
Both Valdosta City Schools and Lowndes County Schools have the advantage of being neighbors to three colleges: Valdosta State University, Wiregrass Technical College and Georgia Military College.
Dual enrollment, a program that allows high school students to earn college credits, has been implemented in many school districts across the state. However, the close ties between the two school systems and three colleges has expanded opportunities for area high school students.
“We have Wiregrass teaching students right here in our building,” Gaskins said.
All high school students can take dual-enrollment courses with multiple offerings from all three colleges.
Counselors do the best they can to reach all students, even when big ratios overwhelm them. Gaskins said social media is a useful tool as well as sending out Remind alerts, a notification system that sends text messages to students.
It would always be easier if students approach counselors first, said Justin Harrison, a counselor at Colquitt County High School.
“It’s pivotal that every student knows their counselors,” Harrison said. “Everybody, especially when they get to the high school level, needs to know if they want to go to a four-year college, two-year college or even the military. It’s important that they know us so we can help them pursue their goals because that's our job.”
Those missed individual connections between her and her students are what worries Gaskins the most — not the 455:1 ratio.
To make a counselor shortage less overwhelming, Gaskins said counselors need to get creative and try new things that will benefit students.
“No one here has ever told me that we can’t do it because it’s the way we’ve always done it,” Gaskins said. “If there’s something new out there that we learn from a counselor’s meeting or some kind of online resource that we find, we try to push it forward to our students.”
In addition to Katelyn Umholtz, SunLight Project reporters Markeith Cromartie, Patti Dozier, Charles Oliver and Gil Pound contributed to this report.
Katelyn Umholtz is a reporter with the Valdosta Daily Times. She can be contacted at (229)244-3400 ext. 1256.