Yakima County schools are battling an undersupply of school counselors and mental health support amid increasing student need.
While school counselors once were thought of strictly as academic guidance counselors, local school officials say their role has expanded as students’ emotional and mental health needs grow.
At the same time, state funding for supporting roles has remained stagnant. At least half of area school districts employ more counselors than the state funds or partner with outside organizations to provide necessary support to students.
In the Mt. Adams School District, for example, the state funds less than two full-time counselors’ salaries. But the district employs four counselors across K-12, in addition to partnering with Yakama Nation Behavioral Health to provide mental health support to students two days a week.
School officials across the Valley say they still feel the need for more resources. They say staff can’t keep up with mental and behavioral health demands and growing academic expectations.
While lawmakers in Olympia weigh the possibility of several bills surrounding counseling and mental health improvements in schools, local schools are finding innovative ways to meet the needs already in front of them.
In 2011, the state rolled out a staffing model that outlined a ratio of employees to students for roles like school counselors, nurses, social workers, psychologists and family engagement coordinators.
The plan determined how much funding the state would provide a school of a given size for each role to fulfill its obligation to fund basic education. The ratios were based on research from the mid-1970s, “without consideration for the evolving changes in student needs or more effective educational practices,” according to a 2019 report by a work group tasked with recommending staffing updates to lawmakers.
With the exception of slight improvements to middle and high school counselor ratios, the funding model has not been updated since then.
For every 811 elementary school students, the state funds one full-time counselor. A counselor is funded for every 236 high school students or 355 middle school students.
State funding for a full-time nurse, social worker, psychologist or family engagement coordinator requires thousands of students.
Now, several bills being considered in Olympia could help update the antiquated system.
A Senate bill requested by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal could gradually update ratios between now and the 2025-26 school year, helping schools better fund necessary counselors, nurses and social workers. Another bill would better define counselors’ roles in an effort to ensure students get proper one-on-one time with their counselors. And several bills propose establishing school-based mental health centers.
These proposals could help state law catch up to new realities.
Most Yakima County districts have either hired counselors above what the state funded through grants or local levy funds, or they partner with organizations like Comprehensive Healthcare, Catholic Charities or Yakama Nation Behavioral Health to offer more in-depth counseling to students.
One school official called the current state ratio for counselors “ridiculous.”
Of the 15 districts in the county, at least two-thirds said they could use more financial support for counselors. The consensus is that mental health therapists could help alleviate counselors’ growing burden so they could focus on students’ academic growth.
Counselors’ growing role
Sunnyside School District Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hellner-Gomez said she has seen school counselors’ workload become increasingly full and their duties blurred over the past two decades.
“I think that there is always more need for students to get quality services from school counselors, but I’m not sure that everyone, when they hear ‘school counselor,’ knows exactly what a school counselor does and can do,” she said. “School counselors originated as a guidance to student academics.”
As early as ninth grade, counselors connect with students to ensure they’re on track to graduate. Students are four times more likely to graduate from high school if they pass all of their classes freshman year, according to Stand for Children Washington. Counselors begin forming relationships with hundreds of students early on with the goal of preparing them properly to meet their goals after K-12.
“As (counselors) get to know the students individually, students seek them out to help them with their personal issues as well,” Hellner-Gomez said.
Teachers also have increasingly leaned on counselors as a resource for help as students have become more vocal about their mental health struggles, she said.
The result, she said, is overwhelming expectations placed on counselors. In Sunnyside, where two social workers and a mental health therapist work full time to support the district’s counselors, the district funds seven more counselors than the state supports.
Hellner-Gomez said if a counselor’s role was focused on academic and career guidance, that would be enough. But with them being pulled in several directions, she said there is still more need.
This year’s legislative session could address that. A bill in Olympia that would better define counselors’ roles to protect their time with students is picking up steam, after the Senate’s education committee approved it Friday, according to Katie Gustainis, communications director for Stand for Children.
Statewide, concern around the mental health of students in the K-12 system has grown in recent years. Reports from students show an increase in the prominence of suicidal thoughts, anxiety and hopelessness.
It’s an acute issue in Yakima County, where mental health struggles have long outpaced state trends, said Comprehensive Healthcare’s chief clinical officer Ron Gengler.
Struggles with depression, anxiety and trauma are exacerbated when children grow up in poverty, witness physical abuse, experience the incarceration of a parent or are sexually abused, he said. Locally, many of those experiences are unfortunately not uncommon, he added.
Countywide, one in four girls is sexually assaulted by age 18, according to Comprehensive. One in six boys is sexually assaulted by the same age.
In 2017, the poverty rate in the county was 19%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Because circumstances like this are not new to Yakima, caseloads for therapists working with local kids have been consistently high across years and decades, Gengler said. In a given year, the organization works with about 1,500 K-12-aged clients, he said.
“Kids with trauma has been unfortunately pretty consistent,” Gengler said.
Students increasingly report mental health struggles.
In 2018, 43% of more than 2,000 surveyed seniors in Yakima County high schools reported having had depressive feelings in the past year, up from 31% in 2008, according to the Healthy Youth Survey. Among eighth-grade students in 2018, 35% reported feeling so sad or hopeless for two weeks or more that they stopped doing their usual activities.
At the same time, Gengler said not enough people are entering the mental health field. Positions for new therapists will remain open for weeks at a time, meaning that not everyone who needs in-depth support can get it as consistently as mental health professionals would like. He said there is a need to provide more incentives, such has helping repay student loans, to draw future professionals.
That shortage of professionals is already felt in Yakima County schools, where referral services are shared across 15 districts, said Luz Prieto, Grandview’s executive director of federal and state programs.
“Unfortunately, the need is growing at a faster rate than we are certifying therapists and specialists. So it’s a difficult one. We’re doing the best with what we can,” she said.
Prieto said district staff with training in crisis intervention are helping develop the schools’ trauma-informed teaching approach. Recently, a support group formed to help connect students identified as at-risk with intervention plans, she said. And schools within the district have begun teaching students mindfulness strategies to help them cope better with life’s struggles.
Grandview and Mt. Adams recently launched calm rooms, a concept inspired by a therapy room at Ridgeview Elementary School in Yakima, to help young students process experiences and learn self-awareness skills.
The dimly lit rooms have aromatherapy and serve as a safe space for students to decompress, work through conflict with other students or speak with a counselor. They are intended to normalize emotions and reinforce good behaviors like respect and compromise.
These efforts are intended to give students social and emotional skills at a young age.
At Mt. Adams’ Harrah Elementary School, Principal Rob McCracken said the combination of the calm room and daily 30-minute social and emotional lessons started this year. The changes have helped create a new atmosphere of safety and trust within the school.
School counselor Cesar Hernandez and a social emotional counselor run the programs, working with students through positive reinforcement. Already, the district has seen students who were disruptive become leaders in their classes; student discipline has declined; and achievement outcomes are beginning to show signs of growth, he said.
But when it comes to long-term mental health needs, Hernandez said he struggles to get students from the high-poverty community to appointments with therapists in more resource-rich areas like Yakima — about 20 miles away from Harrah. He dreams of another counselor, mental health and behavioral specialist joining the school.
Superintendent Curt Guaglianone said the district will welcome any funds from Olympia to add services.
Back in Grandview, Prieto worries the funds won’t be enough.
“Even if they gave us the money, would I be able to find a certified therapist?” she asked.
This story has been updated to correct the name of Stand for Children.