Picture a young lady named Ava in one of our local high schools. She is overwhelmed by her parents’ separation and her own difficulty at school. Ava begins to experience suicidal thoughts, then to inflict harm on herself. Her mother notices her wounds and takes her to the hospital. She learns that her daughter has never talked to school support personnel because she found it too difficult to get an appointment. How have we gotten to this point?
Recently I talked with a group of school counselors, psychologists and social workers about their work serving the children of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. These folks are heroes, working long and difficult hours to ensure that students’ social and emotional health are supported so they can be successful in school.
I was impressed by their passion and dedication but troubled by what I heard. Most said they spent all day putting out fires, unable to see students unless there was a crisis. They spoke of experience they have in preventative strategies which is wasted as they find themselves constantly in reactive mode.
The primary reason support staff are stuck in reactive mode is that insufficient funding has left them woefully understaffed. Recommended ratios for school counselors and social workers are 1:250. This year CMS students are supported by counselors at an average ratio of 1:381 (which can be much higher at certain schools) and by social workers at just 1:2957. The suggested ratio of psychologists per student is 1:500-700. The CMS ratio is 1:2112. Many social workers and psychologists are being asked to do the work of four people.
Our student support services play an essential role in ensuring that schools are safe and focused on learning. When they are able to deliver the range of services they are trained to deliver, all students benefit.
Elected officials must be willing to prioritize the funding of education — and not just academic material, but also the education of our social and emotional needs. After the Parkland, Fla., massacre, N.C. legislators convened a select committee on school safety. Unsurprisingly, they found their own deep budget cuts had resulted in staffing ratios that did not adequately provide for students’ social and emotional needs. With the short session now underway in Raleigh, we’re watching to see whether legislators are willing to act on the committee’s recommendation to increase the number of support services personnel.
While we wait for progress at the state level, there’s also work to be done in Mecklenburg County. In this year’s budget, CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox is asking county commissioners for $4.4 million to hire 33 school counselors, 17 social workers and 10 psychologists. The new hires would represent a step in the right direction. Commissioners have to make tough decisions about how to allocate resources, but few things are more important than making sure future taxpayers, workers and citizens are socially and emotionally healthy.
Students today endure more pressure than ever, and their futures depend on our support. We need to enable our support services to use their training in preventative strategies. We need to put professionals in a position to build trusting relationships with children and nurture the coping skills students so desperately need. Prioritizing students' social and emotional well-being will help transform schools into the safe and supportive learning environments that benefit us all.