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NORMAL — To 16-year-old Leanne Neill, the Normal Community High School counseling staff has been a godsend.

A NCHS sophomore, she missed several days of class last semester after her cousin suffered a serious spinal injury while playing defensive tackle for his high school in Watseka.

"They ask me all the time how he's doing and how the family is," she said. "I spent a lot of time out of class, and they helped me get caught up on homework and stay on track."

Unfortunately, school counselors have steadily fewer opportunities to provide the kind of one-on-one attention students like Neill received.

Illinois high schools, on average, ask their counselors to take on 320 students each, up from 314 two years ago and 291 six years ago, according to education watchdog group Advance Illinois.

Executive Director Robin Steans called that workload "ridiculous." It's 46th in the nation; Wyoming is first with one counselor per 96 students.

The American School Counselor Association recommends 250 students per counselor in high schools.

Bloomington-Normal's numbers are on par with the state's. Local high schools average 310 students per counselor, with some counselors expected to assist as many as 400 students.

While local administrators say financial issues force them to be frugal everywhere, including the guidance office, counselors think they could elicit even greater success in local students with larger teams.

NCHS counselor Kristina White calculates "with typically 420 minutes in a school day, that would leave each of us about one minute per student we serve," and meetings and training knock it down to "seconds per student."

That means less time not only for the things associated with high school guidance — class scheduling, scholarships and college recommendation letters — but also "to look out for and support our students as a whole," she said.

White worries the level of care Neill received will fade away as the community, and Normal Community, continues to grow.

"The issues we tend to see most often in our office involve self-harm, academic struggles, motivational needs, family issues, peer conflict, teacher conflict and suicide," said White. "The role of a school counselor to a school building is beyond vital. ... Students need and crave the adult connection of being supported and understood."

Missing out on a personal connection means counselors "are not able to get to know our freshmen students by first and last name by the end of the year, causing us to not be able to create working relationships with these students early on" and "deliver information in group settings at sporadic times."

"Our students are lucky to have the adults they do at NCHS; we just wish there were more of us to go around," she said.

Across town at Normal Community West High School, counselors average 326 students each, said counselor Brooke Bollmann.

When asked about the duties she shares with Courtney O’Connor for University High School's 600 students, Karen Valouche laughed.

"Where would you like us to start?" she said.

Like White, Valouche and O'Connor cover everything from scheduling to behavioral issues, but the academic strength of U High places different stress on its guidance office.

“We do all our college applications and recommendations in the fall for seniors," Valouche said. "About 98 percent of our school is college-bound, so it’s a heavy amount of paperwork (in a short time)."

Between meeting with students, weekly student assistance meetings and monitoring homeroom, which the pair started this fall, “our day many, many times is very fragmented," O'Connor said.

"We can bounce from one second being on the phone with a parent to the next moment a student walking in, and the next out the door for a meeting,” she said.

Valouche would love to see the school hire two additional counselors so they can move with each class of students from enrollment to graduation.

“I think we definitely get spread pretty thin, and I would love to know my students better than I do,” she said. "We’re perfectly happy in our jobs and love our school, but it’s always a question we would like to ask.”

Bloomington High School Principal Tim Moore, who spoke for the guidance department there, said "our counselors do a good job of managing their time and meeting the needs of our kids,” although “it would be nice if they had more time to do things with students.” Each helps about 358 students.

Central Catholic High School is the only Bloomington-Normal building below 250 students per counselor, at 165, and counselor Josh Hunt said it makes a big difference.

"I certainly appreciate that ratio because it helps me to know our students on a personal basis, especially by senior year," he said. "That's fulfilling to me on a personal level, but I also find that it really enables me to be more helpful to them when giving college guidance or writing college letters of recommendation."

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Normal and McLean County Reporter

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