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Tuesday, February 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Many high-school counselors grapple with growing caseloads

OLYMPIA — Counselors at North Thurston High School used to meet individually with every freshman and sophomore earning D's or F's to help them get back on track.

At most local high schools, counselors used to check in with all 11th-graders to make sure they were taking the right classes and had the grades they'd need to graduate on time.

Those services are becoming a thing of the past, as high-school counselors here and across the state face growing caseloads. At the same time, students need their help more than ever — whether it's applying to college or meeting more complex graduation requirements.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of about 250 to 1, but it's nearly twice that at many high schools in the state.

"Students aren't receiving the services they should be," said Sharon LaBuda, a counselor at Timberline High School in Lacey, Thurston County.

North Thurston's student-to-counselor ratio is 480 to 1, making it the highest in Thurston County's three largest school districts.

"What really bothers me is that we don't have the time to do that professional job that I really like to do and that we are capable of doing," said Leah Zhu, a North Thurston counselor.

Olympia and Timberline high schools aren't far behind, with about 460 and 430 students per counselor, respectively.

The numbers often mean counselors spend their time with the students who need them most and with those who take the initiative to make appointments. Those just getting by might not see a counselor until late in their high-school career, said Danise Ackelson, a counselor at Olympia High School.

"We really don't want to shortchange students," Ackelson said. "We want to leave our jobs saying, 'I made a difference in students' lives.' Instead, we feel like when we leave our jobs, there are so many undone things we wish we'd have more time to do."

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The North Thurston and Tumwater school districts each pay for three full-time counselor positions and the Olympia School District pays for four. Those numbers haven't changed in years, even as student enrollment has risen.

The burgeoning caseload comes as counselors are faced with additional responsibilities, particularly as this year's sophomores become the first class in Washington to face a new set of graduation requirements.

The class of 2008 has to pass the 10th-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning to graduate. Once students take the WASL in March and April, teachers, counselors and others throughout the school will be called upon to help those who fail.

Meanwhile, counselors say they have to help students with a growing array of personal struggles: many are homeless or living in poverty. More experience mental illness or have more complex medical or developmental disorders.

"There are issues of drug use in the home, not just with the kids," said Peggy Young, a counselor at North Thurston. "Twenty years ago, it wasn't like this."

Counselors intervene when crises arise, but they often don't have time to follow up. "I believe clearly we need more counselors even under the current system," said Olympia School Board President Russ Lehman, though he said tight budgets won't allow that soon.

Students like 18-year-old Raymond Caitlin, a senior at North Thurston, say it can be tough to get an appointment with a counselor, though the wait can be worth it.

Stephen Bray, whose son is a college-bound senior at Olympia High School, said their counselor, Ackelson, has been fantastic. "She has always been available and encouraging," Bray said.

On top of the daily duties of meeting the needs of some 450 students, Bray noted that counselors have to write college recommendations and coordinate the college-application process.

"With all of the demands upon them and with their additional responsibilities, I'm afraid we will burn them all out unless they are provided with more help," Bray said. "They are the unsung heroes of the high schools."

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