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WV House bill aims to help at-risk students

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At-risk students may soon get more time with their school counselors.

That's because the House of Delegates on March 29 passed a bill that would increase the amount of time school counselors spend in direct and indirect counseling relationships with students while decreasing the amount of time they spend on administrative duties. Counselors currently spend about 75 percent of their time in direct or indirect counseling to students with the remainder spent in administrative duties or filling other roles within the school. House Bill 2563 increase the amount of time spent with students to 90 percent.

But although the bill passed 93-4, not everyone supported changing the code, including representatives from the West Virginia Department of Education.

"High school counselors could not possibly complete their work," Barb Brady, counseling coordinator for the Department of Education told the House Finance Committee March 25. "It would be wonderful if they could, but their role is very diverse. Elementary counselors traditionally spend more time face to face."

Brady pointed out that counseling models adopted by West Virginia schools are prevention-based and require a lot of planning. While spending 90 percent of time with students would be "awesome," Brady said counselors spend much of their time researching, planning and seeking professional development.

But according to the House Education Committee, the bill was drafted to help frustrated counselors who found they were spending their work days doing things other than counseling students.

"Counselors need to be counselors, not everything else," Finance Committee Chairman Delegate Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, said during the March 25 meeting.

That sentiment was echoed on the House floor prior to the March 29 vote. Delegate Jeff Eldridge, D-Lincoln, worked as a mental health professional for 11 years and spent time as both a social worker and a school counselor. He said he's worked with more than 500 children and their families.

"These kids come to me as grown people now, 30 years old with families of their own and living productive lives," Eldridge said. "I ask them one question — what did I do to help you succeed in society? Everyone told me I'm working with future criminals. I didn't look at them as future criminals. I looked at them as me. The things they did were the things I did in school. Everyone had the same answer, it was time. I spent time with them. I listened to them. I gave them a hug when they needed it."

Delegate Mary Poling, D-Barbour, and chairwoman of the House Education Committee, told delegates that counselors would still have 40 to 50 minutes daily for administrative work. She also pointed out the ratio of counselors to students is too low, but counselors do need to spend time with students deemed at-risk.

"This is an effort to ensure those counselors … who know how to deal with students who are at-risk," Poling said. "At-risk doesn't always mean troubled. Sometimes they need counseling on academic plans, they need individual attention and this will get them the attention when counselors are not staffed as they should be in our schools."

Time counselors spend preparing high school seniors for college would be included in the 90 percent, Poling said.

The bill passed 93-4 with Republican Delegates Marty Gearheart, Gary Howell, Larry Kump and Eric Nelson voting against. House Bill 2563 will now go to the Senate.