The beleaguered remnants of the Payson Unified School District have stretched to the vanishing point to cope with a mounting list of tasks.
Once upon a time, the district employed six full-time counselors at the middle school and high school, but this year that total has dwindled to 2.5, head counselor Don Heizer reported to the school board on Monday.
The high school now has one full-time counselor and one half-timer and the middle school has another full-time counselor. Budget cuts have eliminated the rest, including one counselor to help students deal with drug and alcohol programs and an intervention counselor to help students in crisis.
“We hope we’re maintaining an organized chaos,” said Heizer of the big increase in paperwork caused by layers of new state requirements, which have fallen on a counseling staff that has shrunk dramatically.
Still, the remaining counselors try to meet with each student at least once a year — although most of the appointments last between seven and 30 minutes, said Heizer.
“By spring break, we need to have finished one-on-one interviews with each student,” said Heizer, including about 700 high school students and nearly 600 middle school students. “Some you sit down and boom, boom, boom, you’re done in seven minutes. Some take longer. Some take 30 minutes.”
Many students and parents have reported deep frustration with the current system, which gives students fleeting opportunities to get help working out complicated schedules.
“If you don’t know exactly what classes you need before you even go in there, you’re in deep trouble,” said Harrison McKinney. He’s a senior taking dual credit Gila Community College classes and said he mostly had to figure out the jigsaw puzzle of his schedule on his own.
“They seem to steer everyone into vocational tracks,” said one parent. “They barely mention the college track requirements unless you ask them specifically.”
In the old days, counselors had time to visit classrooms and work more directly with students — including students with drug, medical or behavioral problems. Now, they barely have time for a hurried, once-a-year meeting.
“Things get upside down when you’re basically chained to your chair,” said Heizer.
The counselors must shoot at constantly moving targets, as both the state and the district change the ground rules. For instance, the state recently added math and science classes to the basic graduation requirement — forcing an overhaul of student schedules. Then the high school shifted to a six-period day, forcing another upheaval.
“So now students have 24 class opportunities — with 19 classes required by the district for graduation. So with four college pathways and 16 vocational tracks, we’ve had to get very, very creative with the six-year plan,” said Heizer. “It really gets difficult with the double block classes for the students on the college track who want to also take anything on the vocational track.”
The counselors are charged with a daunting array of tasks. Consider a partial list:
• Make sure students have enough credits to graduate
• Ensure they make up failed classes
• Consider one of the 16 vocational program tracks
• Check to make sure they take classes necessary to apply to college
• Check whether they’ve passed the AIMS test
• Connect those in trouble to extra academic help
• Make sure they apply for scholarships
• Update their six-year plan leading to graduation
• Help determine which electives will fit into their schedule
• Check to see if they should test for the gifted program
• Make sure they consider advanced placement classes
• See if they should take dual credit classes at Gila Community College
• Make sure they take a test gauging their interest in various careers
• Check that they accumulate a portfolio of work the Legislature requires for graduation in 2013
Heizer said that the counseling staff can now barely cover the basic tasks, with little time left to help the kinds of troubled students with complicated problems — both at home and in school.
Board member Matt Van Camp said, “We’re putting more and more pressure on the counseling staff. It sounds like there will be a point where students will say, ‘I’m in middle school, but I’m not going to college because I can’t get the classes I need.’
“We have lots of long pencils with no erasers left on them,” as a result of constantly adjusting schedules “when a student catches fire and says, ‘I really want to go into this area.’”
“Do you have students falling between the cracks?” asked board member Kim Pound.
“That’s what we work very hard to try to coordinate ourselves. We try to build safety nets and hopefully those safety nets will catch them before they hit the floor.”
Unfortunately, Heizer said the counseling staff has seen a sharp rise in problems related to the stress and anxiety students must cope with at home, especially in families struggling with unemployment and financial problems.
“We’ve had a big increase in personal and social issues in the past two years and it’s directly related to what’s happening at home,” said Heizer.
However, the counseling staff now rarely has the manpower to provide much one-on-one help for those struggling students. “We’ve had a lot of delays due to the lack of counselors.”
The district’s rising turnover rates have also posed a challenge, since it takes two to five hours of work with a counselor to get a new student on track, which includes filling out all the necessary paperwork and making sure the district has complete records from other schools the students have attended.
Overall, the turnover has continued to cost the district students — a major factor in the current budget problems. School officials and other community organizations report that many young families faced with a critical lack of jobs in Rim Country have given up and moved away in the past two years.
Heizer noted that this year 195 students who enrolled in the spring didn’t come back in the fall. The 111 new students who showed up didn’t make up for the loss — but each one required five or six hours of counseling time to get signed up for all the right classes.
Van Camp said the district should try to get back to having one counselor per grade level. “It’s a lot of money, but it’s the future of our students.”
“We need to do everything we can to staff the counseling office,” agreed Pound.