COOPER CITY, Fla. Roslyn Wagners tone shifts from cheerful to concerned as she looks through the grades of the teenage boy seated before her.
Theres no reason for this, the guidance counselor tells him.
Just three years ago, Blake Mankin scored at the highest possible level on Floridas standardized assessment in math. He could be in honors math classes, but had to repeat algebra. Hes just a freshman, but his grades are so low that if he doesnt raise them, he could be in danger of not graduating from Cooper City High School.
What happened? Wagner asks.
He admits that he hasnt worked hard enough.
It is 10:02 a.m., and already a group of students await Wagners attention. The 15-year-old boy has to get back to his gym class. They both glance at the clock.
In all, Wagner has to register 600 freshmen in this high school in a suburb north of Miami for their next years classes, and help another 200 12th-grade students through college applications and graduation. There are recommendation letters to write, crises to handle. On the one hand, she must monitor low performing students; on the other, she must shepherd a bevy of meticulous students at this A-rated school vying to get into the nations most prestigious colleges.
Theres just not enough time but the boy is there, and he needs her help.
Wagner takes an extra minute.
More students to guide
The caseload wasnt always this high; before, Wagner used to handle just one grade. But two years ago, one of the schools four guidance counselors retired, and the Broward County School District the nations sixth largest, now facing a shortfall of nearly $172 million hasnt replaced her. That left Wagner with the 600 students she previously guided and a portion of the retired counselors caseload, divided among the three counselors who remain.
Its too many kids, Wagner says with a sigh.
Shes far from alone in her predicament. The average public school counselor in the United States has 457 students. In Michigan, the average counselor had 759 students in 2008-09. In California, it was 814.
States and districts have been hit really hard by budget cuts and the recession, said Jill Cook, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association. There are positions being cut and jobs lost.
One UCLA researcher calculated public high school counselors spend about 38 minutes each year per student. A Public Agenda survey of first-year college students conducted found that more than half felt their counselors treated them like just another face in the crowd.
The same survey found that those with little meaningful interaction with counselors were less likely to go directly from high school to post-secondary education an important predictor of future college completion.
Researchers think these high counselor-to-student ratios are partially to blame for why more students dont go on to graduate from college. A recent study from Harvard University, for example, cited the nations weak guidance counseling system as one of the reasons why more students arent making a smoother transition into post-secondary education and careers, and said that many other developed counties dedicate significant more time and resources to counseling.
Parents get angry when you dont do more, said Robert Bardwell, past president of the New England Association for College Admissions Counseling. And its sad because we should be doing more.
To cope, Wagner runs her office like a sort of triage center: She has a brochure, book or online resource for nearly every student concern. Scholarships? Check. Requirements to enter a state college? Check. Trouble deciding what career path to choose? Shes got a book on that, too.
Even with her limited time, Wagners impact is noticeable. Banners to colleges where students have been accepted hang from the walls this years graduating class includes students going to state colleges and prestigious Ivy League universities. Parents and students send her letters of thanks. It has been an amazing turnaround, one parent wrote. He is now on the honor roll (all As) and seems happier than ever and is planning on college.
She advises her students with the candor of a strict supervisor and the concern of a caring mother. On a recent weekday, she is scheduled to help register about 20 freshmen for next years classes. For many, its the first time shes meeting one-on-one with them. Theyre pulled out of a gym class and wait to be called in from a small lobby outside her office.
Summer work, as a volunteer
The work is never finished. This summer, Wagner will go to the office for a day every couple of weeks, registering new students for next years classes. In the past, shes been paid for this, but after years of budget cuts, she is now a summer volunteer. She does not complain. This is my school, she says simply.
Nor does she complain that there was no time to leave her post for lunch on a recent day. She reached into her desk for a jar of peanut butter and made a sandwich.
When you love what you do, you dont mind, she says. But you do get tired.
It is not unusual for Wagner to bring college recommendations and other work home. While her husband reads or watches the news, shell work at a table nearby.
Does she feel like she is able to meet the needs of every student? Yes. But is she as effective as before, when she had fewer students?
Not really. You dont have that personal contact, Wagner says.
Families, often reacting to the high caseloads assigned to public school counselors, are increasingly hiring private counselors to help their children get ahead. And the persistent struggles linked to the recession parents losing jobs, foreclosures that have displaced families for their homes mean many children are coming to school with a host of worries they didnt have before.
For Wagner, what were once one-on-one meetings with students are now sometimes handled in large groups.
Shes been a counselor for nearly 15 years; she took the job after directing a middle school production of Grease. At the time, she was working as a school speech pathologist, and through the play, built a close relationship with the students, who often confided in her.
You need to see your counselor about this, she often found herself telling them.
When enough of those situations came up, Wagner says, I said, I want to be a counselor.
Notwithstanding the cutbacks, it was the best decision I ever made. she says.