Public schools in California have boosted their counseling staffs by 30 percent over the past five years, a trend that’s likely to continue due to a rise in mental health issues, and associated pressures from teachers’ unions.
The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is ahead of the curve, boasting a 110-to-one ratio of counselors to students, compared to the state average of 650-to-one, and exceeding the 250-to-one proportion recommended by the American School Counselor Association.
As a large, complex, urban system, SFUSD is fraught with challenges. Four percent of its 52,000 students are homeless. Fifty-four percent are socioeconomically disadvantaged, defined as either enrolled in a school meal program or having a parent without a high school diploma. Twenty-eight percent are English learners, with 44 documented languages spoken in the system’s 131 schools. These factors can trigger anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation amongst students.
Prior to the 2019-20 school year, the City provided $3.5 million to SFUSD to expand a wellness initiative in which a nurse, behavioral health counselor, community outreach worker and coordinator are placed at the District’s 19 high schools. The extra funding was used to enlarge the program to encompass 21 middle schools, including hiring a wellness coach at nine. Each middle school already had at least one nurse and one social worker.
At the time funding was added the Mayor’s Office reported a waiting list for services. SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews stated that students who got professional help attended school more often. SFUSD has a 12.2 percent chronic absenteeism rate; students who miss at least 10 percent of school days.
The impact of SFUSD’s $31.8 million deficit on the provision of counseling services is not yet known.
According to Patrick Mulkern, Burton High School’s wellness coordinator, San Francisco youth can be impacted by gentrification, food insecurity, income inequality and community violence. Key to his job is developing relationships with students; being someone who they’re comfortable asking for help from and who they believe will listen.
“The goal being when we support basic needs – social, emotional and mental health – they are better able to access the academic curriculum,” he explained.
Expanding mental health programs in schools has been a core request from teachers’ unions, triggering recent strikes across the country. Last year during a walkout in Los Angeles, union members portrayed counselors as being mentors to new immigrants, connecting them to social services and helping with civic integration. SFUSD, in addition to relying on its own staff, has long partnered with community groups to assist migrants.
In 2014, a RAND Corporation study, Student Mental Health in California’s K-12 Schools, revealed that three-quarters of responding principals cited social, emotional, and mental health as a moderate or severe problem at their school. More than half of high school and middle school principals listed depression as an issue. Twenty-five percent of high schools and 16 percent of middle schools said student-attempted suicide was a concern.
At the time California ranked last in the nation among states, with a 1,000-to-one counselor-to-student ratio. Since then the number of counselors has grown from 7,200 to more than 10,000 but the state still ranks 47th in terms of ratio.
According to Dr. Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors (CASC), adoption of a new methodology to evaluate schools that accounts for campus climate – as reflected in how engaged students feel, how supportive the staff is, sense of safety, and attendance – discipline and graduation rates spurred the hiring. SFUSD conducts surveys of parents and students as part of its assessments.
“We had a singular way of evaluating schools before that. And that was on a standardized test once a year,” she explained. The test assessed schools solely based on academic scores. “Everything else was diminished as far as importance, including overall wellbeing of students. Now, it’s a more holistic evaluation.”
“There is just more awareness of what is happening with youth today,” said Mulkern. “And there is more of a push to support mental health.”
Whitson believes there’s also been a rise in mental health struggles among students, a sentiment that’s been confirmed by recent studies. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, child poverty in the state is higher than it was before the Great Recession. San Francisco is at the state average, with 18 percent of children in poverty, but homelessness is on the rise. Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 school in the Mission has a 65 percent occupancy rate at its overnight shelter since opening its gym to all families.
Children living in poverty are more likely to experience traumatic incidents. Even something as common as parents separating can influence grades.
“The ability to learn and such is affected, as we are human beings, by our emotions and our situations,” said Whitson.
Whitson would like to see more therapeutic staff at the lower grades. CASC cites studies that indicate that fielding counselors at the elementary school level increases graduation rates and lowers absenteeism and suspensions. She added that while San Francisco has a high ratio of counselors to students, most personnel are assigned to high schools.
Years ago mental health fell on school nurses and teachers according to one SFUSD employee who has seen multiple generations of students pass through Daniel Webster and Starr King elementary schools. The two schools in the past contracted with outside firms, such as Edgewood Center for Children and Families and Seneca Family of Agencies, to provide emotional support programs.
“It helps to have professionals,” the employee said. “So teachers can be teachers.”
The employee has noticed that since the Trump Administration came to power there’s been an increase in students worrying about their parents being deported. Daniel Webster is 44 percent Hispanic/Latino. Starr King is among the District’s most diverse schools, with Asians making up the largest ethnic group, 28 percent.
In 2018, the Chinese Progressive Association conducted a mental health survey of 971 students, Our Healing in Our Hands, that revealed widespread bullying and chauvinism in City schools.
“Within our current climate of xenophobic and racist violence, immigrant youth and youth of color are experiencing heightened levels of vulnerability and fear, bullying and safety concerns in school, to the point that such feelings became a normalized part of school life,” the report stated, noting particular pressures on students of Middle Eastern descent.
Gay students reported being bullied most often; 39 percent experienced being harassed for their appearance or gender identity.
While the study conceded to over surveying East Asian students, it found that Spanish speakers were two-to-four times more likely than their peers to miss school due to depression, family problems and bullying; 29 percent of Latinx students and 34 percent of mixed race students reported missing school due to stress; and one quarter of African Americans students were absent as a result of family problems.
The study also found Asian Americans were less likely to be referred to or seek wellness services while at the same time exhibiting a high desire for assistance. Because Asians tend to score better on academic tests, have elevated graduation rates and the lowest incidence of absenteeism by far, the study inferred that their needs are often “invisibilized.”
There are also cultural barriers to seeking mental health services; several students expressed anxiety about others discovering that they needed emotional support. “It’s something I feel I should deal with on my own,” said one student.