'Swamped' with students: School counselors' workload often more than recommended

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DUBUQUE COUNTY, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) -- Some eastern Iowa school counselors are responsible for too many students according to the American School Counselor Association.

Karla Jokiel's fourth grade classroom at Carver Elementary School in Dubuque on Tuesday, October 3, 2017. (Allison Wong/KCRG-TV9)

The association recommends that each counselor's caseload should be no more than 250 students.

Only three states - New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming - follow that guideline.

Iowa's average ratio is one counselor for 418 students, and that's below the national average, which is one counselor for as many as 482 students.

Dubuque Senior High School counselor Nikki Berna says her workload is a lot, but it's manageable. At her school, the six counselors have roughly 265 students each. Hempstead High School is about 285 students for each counselor.

No matter the number, Berna works to connect with each of her assigned students throughout their four years at Senior.

She's really connected with senior Katie Sampson-Brown.

"I swear, ever since freshman year, you saved me," Sampson-Brown said to Berna. "I was going through a rough time with myself and she was like, 'hey I'm here for you,'" she explained.

Berna is there when students like Sampson-Brown need extra support, and so much more.

She explained, "college counseling, career counseling, someone could be having a bad day, or just checking in with someone."

Berna is busy, but she says she manages with support from other staff.

"It’s time management and we have a great staff and administration. I mean it’s not just the counselors that are helping support our students, we’re the Ram Fam, you know we’re all here to support them," she said.

At Western Dubuque High School, the counselor to student ratio tips more to the student side.

"I have the A through K, the first half of the alphabet, and the other counselor in our building has L through Z," counselor Casey Bryant said.

That breaks down to a little over 450 kids for each of the two counselors at the high school.

Despite this large workload, Bryant tries to reach every student.

He said, "your goal is to try to develop a relationship with as many of them as you can."

However, Bryant admits that's not always likely to happen.

"It's not possible to develop a relationship with all 475 kids," he admitted.

Still, he tries. Like Berna, he says he too relies on other staff in the building.

He said, "staff in the lunchroom, our teacher's aids. Every adult in this building is trying really hard to reach out to kids.”

Berna and Bryant admit that in recent years, there's been more of a focus on mental health.

Bryant says he works with students who have anxiety, eating disorders or even have suicidal thoughts.

"We act as a front line of defense for the mental health field in general," he said. "We’ve discovered a lot of significant mental health issues that have avoided tragedies.”

So he says it would be great to have more help, but he believes lawmakers need to step in and give school districts more funding to make that happen.

"If we had the funds to support more counselors, I know we’d have that kind of support from our superintendent, our board and our administration," Bryant said.

Berna also says the Dubuque Community School District is supportive of their counselors.

And so is Sampson-Brown.

"It's good to have them. I'd say they're really important."