Arlington to hire 18 school counselors, some trustees want more

06/04/2014 11:08 AM

06/04/2014 5:14 PM

School district officials are looking for candidates to fill 18 counseling positions in Arlington schools to keep up with increased demands under House Bill 5.

The district posted counselor applications on its website at the day after trustees voted 7-0 to spend $1.7 million on new jobs and programs based on recommendations from its Financial Futures Committee.

The committee, which includes teacher associations, parents and community members, is an advisory group that provides input on ways to save money and run schools more efficiently.

As a part of the 10 recommendations that were accepted Tuesday night, the district dialed back the committee’s suggestion that it hire 26 counselors for junior high and high school campuses to keep up with new graduation requirements under HB5.

Instead, it voted to hire $1.1 million in additional counselors —12 at high schools and six at junior high schools — for the upcoming school year.

But trustees like Peter Baron, Gloria Peña, Aaron Reich and John Hibbs expressed concerns that the district hasn’t moved swiftly enough, or is not hiring enough counselors to keep up with growing demands.

“… I think we all feel we still need more. Our strategic plan is very bold, and all the things we have done recently have been very bold and transformational … but I’d like to see more. For me, personally, I don’t know if it’s truly transformational enough,” Reich said of the new positions.

New graduation requirements place a heavy emphasis on counselors because students must receive extra counseling on required “ endorsements” in business and industry, public services, arts and humanities, multidisciplinary studies or the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

A selection of an endorsement, or area of study, will put them on track to graduate with 26 credits.

Counselors will have to meet with junior high students about their plans. They’ll also have to, in essence, help teenagers decide what they want to do with the rest of their high school education and potentially their career.

Peña said she is relieved that the district is currently seeking new counselors.

“This House Bill 5 is going to put a real burden on our counselors,” she said. “… It created an environment where the whole state of Texas is going to be looking for counselors, and we don’t want to have a shortage.”

Too much red space

Two school administrators, Rick Garcia over transformation learning, and Nell Fielding over guidance and counseling worked with a committee of lead counselors at each school to determine the shortage.

Garcia said the 18 new jobs were based on a needs-based formula.

The formula compared how many minutes counselors work annually and how many minutes it would take them to satisfy the four state recommended components of their job with the current enrollment at their campuses.

“… We realized a counselor would have to work about 11 hours a day to meet all the students on campus,” Garcia said.

The Texas Education Agency recommends junior high counselors spend 10-15 percent of their time on system support, 15-25 percent on individual planning, 30-40 percent on responsive services, and 35-40 percent on guidance curriculum.

Arlington junior high counselors spend 3 percent of their time on guidance curriculum.

They spend 45 percent of time on non-guidance related work, like serving on committees and helping with testing.

Trustee John Hibbs is concerned with that 45 percent that is being spent on other duties.

“… If we don’t have appropriate staffing to seriously move that number, we are not going to be able to truly meet our goals,” he said at a Tuesday board meeting.

Hibbs said he isn’t sure that hiring only six counselors for the district’s 12 junior high schools will allow counselors to spend more time on guidance curriculum.

Not a silver bullet

Garcia said the next step is taking a look at guidance technicians and test facilitators, which are jobs that are supposed to help counselors, and making sure they are doing what they are supposed to do.

“It’s not the silver bullet, but we believe it’s a step in the right direction and the next step is to look at those two positions,” Garcia said.

He said administrators will meet with lead counselors, counselors selected as point persons for their campuses, and talk about time management.

Newly elected trustee Kecia Mays questioned if another position should be created to take the burden off counselors and decrease that 45 percent. Mays served on the committee that made initial recommendations to the board May 15.

Garcia said administrators should be able to come back to the school board with updated efficiency numbers in the fall of 2015.

Peña thinks it can be done sooner.

“We’ll see if we can’t do it sooner, because we are adamant about the fact that we need to have adequately staffed counselors, and if they come back in August and say, ‘We need five more,’ that’s fine,” she said.

Some of the other committee recommendations approved Tuesday night include: parent orientations on graduation requirements, an advanced academics coordinator position, and a $350,000 software system that helps teachers assess students’ reading and math skill levels.

Trustees are poised to vote on other recommendations at $2.6 million, which include cost of living pay raises, on June 12.

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