NEA:National Education Association
Related Service Providers
Taking the Hit
Social problems, budget cuts, and policy mandates are presenting tough new challenges to school service providers—and students are losing out.
By Mike Tucker
Photos by Steve Shelton Two years ago, school counselor Karyn Holt was doing what she does best—listening and advising, sorting out fights, boosting self-esteem, and generally making sure the students in her school district stayed happy and emotionally steady. Then the budget ax fell and Holt lost her job, but not the love of students who quickly let her know how much they still needed her.
"I will miss you dearly, Mrs. Holt," wrote one. "Every fight that has gone on in this school you have solved."
"You were the best," wrote another. "I've been to four different schools and have never had a counselor like you."
A few kids, a few problems solved, a few notes of thanks—Holt, who worked in the East Valley School District in Spokane, Washington, says she wouldn't trade the memories for the world. But now she worries about who's taking up the slack and helping kids who don't have anyone to "counsel them through difficult times."
Schools Asked To Do More
It's a question a lot of educators are asking as they ponder the burgeoning complexity of their students' lives—and, by extension, their own. Gone are the days, they say, when they simply taught the three R's, tended playground scrapes, and provided career guidance. Now they must grapple with a slate of problems taken directly from medical charts and police blotters—suicide, homicide, drug abuse, gangs, HIV, hunger, homelessness, and teen pregnancy. In addition, more students are in need of specialized physical and mental care before, during, and after classes.
"If students are from a healthy family they bring those strengths, and if they're from a dysfunctional family they bring those liabilities," says Randy Fisher, executive director of the School Social Work Association of America. "They don't check their problems at the door."
That's why schools need their special expertise more than ever, say related service providers (RSPs). But many of these professionals—counselors, psychologists, nurses, speech-hearing-language pathologists, social workers, and occupational and physical therapists—are sounding alarms over budget cutbacks, staffing decisions, and federal mandates they say have them buried in paperwork and school districts drowning in red ink.
Along with administrators, they cite the trickle-down effect of cutbacks from federal to state to local budgets and under-funded mandates imposed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the so-called No Child Left Behind law.
"The fiscal realities are there and we have to face them," says Leland C. Huff, president of the National Association of School Psychologists. "One of the things we constantly hear from teachers and administrators is to make the cuts as far away from the classroom as possible."
As a former history and English teacher, Regina Rossall says she understands the importance of retaining top talent in the classroom. But as an administrator, she knows matching budget to staffing is usually bottom-line toil.
"You try to make the best decision within the fiscal parameters," says Rossall, superintendent of Westside Union School District in Lancaster, California. But as with a business, she adds, "if you're not operating in the black, you can't continue for very long."
A Blow to Student Achievement
Photo by Jodie Andruskevich Yet the consequences of understaffing or misplacing resources can be devastating for schools because RSPs are typically called on when problems, big and little, arise. Take counselors. Judy Bowers, president of the American School Counselor Association, says that, in reality, they don't just "counsel"; they act as teachers, mentors, even club counselors—and research shows student improvement in reading, math, and attendance when they're in the mix.
"The lack of counseling services interferes with student learning," agrees Ellen Dunn, a special education teacher in Fargo, North Dakota. "I've had students in the past who've had severe depression issues that obviously affected their academic performance."
Fisher, who worked as a school social worker for 31 years before heading the social work association, says, "In order for students to do well, they have to be together socially and emotionally." He says cutting service positions is "short-sighted because mental health services relate to academic achievement."
Yet, like other service providers, counselors often find themselves at the mercy of a district's financial bottom line. In other words, when the money is available, they work; when it's not, students and other educators are adversely affected. There is growing concern, for instance, about the challenges and liabilities of providing safe health care for students.
"One of our biggest concerns is the increase in the number of children who have special health care needs—respirators, feeding tubes, diabetes, asthma, and life-threatening allergies," says Nancy Wells, an elementary school nurse in Dover, New Hampshire. "Are kids receiving safe care? Are school staffers doing something they may be liable for if something goes wrong?"
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American Occupational Therapy Association
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American School Counselor Association
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
National Association of School Nurses
National Association of School Psychologists
School Social Work Association of America
The answers are troubling. "There are large numbers of children without access to direct medical care," says Janis Hootman, president of the National Association of School Nurses. "Administrators want school nurses, but they are forced to choose between textbooks and health care."
Even when schools are properly staffed, service providers may be overused or misused. "All educators have experienced dramatic increases in their workload because of new federal and state accountability measures," says Patti Ralabate, a special needs expert for NEA. "The problem is far-reaching," she reports. "Working conditions for RSPs are horrendous in most parts of the country."
Kathleen Whitmire, director of school services for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, says her members have reported increased caseloads, inadequate therapy and office space, and a loss of materials and clerical support. "Many of them will experience burnout and leave the schools for private practice, clinics, or academia," she warns.
Despite the current situation, educators and administrators agree that students must be served. For Marie DiMatties, an occupational therapist for Pennsauken Public Schools in New Jersey, serving students means that therapists and other RSPs must be more "creative" during intervention, scheduling, and collaboration to complete their required tasks. Despite the added pressure, the 30-year veteran insists "my greatest joy is seeing a child become successful."
—With additional reporting by Sabrina Holcomb
No Simple Life
One in five children has a diagnosable mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder, says a U.S. Surgeon General's report on mental health. However, 70 percent of children do not receive mental health services.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds and the sixth leading cause of death for 5- to 14-year-olds. The number of attempted suicides is even higher.
Nearly one million children are homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Education, most of them preschool and elementary age.