Budget cuts have forced most Tucson-area school districts to shed school counselors, leaving a void in many elementary schools.

Some districts are looking to form partnerships with nonprofit agencies to help students and families, while some schools pay for their own counselors with donations and federal money.

Counselors and school district officials lamented the cuts, especially at the lower grade levels, where younger children are more vulnerable to the problems they face at home and in school.

"If kids in the elementary level are not given counselor services, the issues they have can grow and get worse," said Tamara McAllister, principal at Walter Douglas Elementary School in the Flowing Wells School District. "They can reach junior high and not have that support system."

The remaining counselors not only face an increasing workload, but more accountability as they take a more active role in classrooms.

Many counselors are now required to teach classroom lessons on issues ranging from career guidance and college preparedness, to substance abuse and conflict resolution.

Counselors also track standardized-test data, student behavior patterns and other school trends.

"It's not the old vision of a counselor sitting around, waiting for someone to drop by," said NJ Utter, director of college readiness for the Sunnyside Unified School District.

Some districts have retained elementary school counselors, but the student-to-counselor ratios are higher than those recommended by the American School Counselor Association.

The organization prescribes a ratio of 250 students to 1 counselor, but Arizona is at 861-1, said Mindy Willard, president-elect of the Arizona School Counselors Association and 2013's National Counselor of the Year.

The national average is 450-1.

"It definitely takes away from what students need," said Willard, a school counselor from the Pendergast Elementary School District in Phoenix's West Valley.

Limited resources

The number of counselors has dwindled in elementary schools as districts look to maintain services for older students preparing for college and careers.

In 2009, the Flowing Wells School District had 12 counselors districtwide, at all grade levels.

Now, the district has five, none at its elementary schools for the upcoming school year.

District officials acknowledge they're unable to fully meet the needs of elementary students who face their own unique issues.

Those issues include family problems such as divorce and households struggling financially because of the economic downturn, McAllister said.

"Anytime you have to concentrate on something emotionally, it's hard to concentrate on schoolwork," she said.

Flowing Wells is looking fill the gap by partnering with La Frontera, a nonprofit behavioral-health-service provider, said Superintendent David Baker.

They are close to finalizing a partnership that would bring a social worker to the district to help families and connect them with other services, Baker said.

Other school districts have cut counselors, but some elementary schools in those districts have paid for their own.

The Tucson Unified School District will have 26 fewer positions this fall, said Holly Colonna, director of guidance counseling and student/service programs. Elementary schools were hit hardest, losing 10.5 positions.

Some schools, such as Manzo Elementary School, decided to keep their counselors by using community donations or federal money given to schools with disadvantaged students, Colonna said.

Colonna said elementary-school students should not have to wait until high school to learn about jobs, bullying, diversity and interpersonal skills.

It's also easier to identify and help students who have mental-health problems in the early grades, she said.

"If they just begin to learn that in high school, we're really missing the mark," she said.

Extra duties

Many districts have implemented new standards for counselors that require increased classroom time and student interaction.

The new standards call for counselors to work with all students, not just the ones with personal problems or those who need college guidance.

As a result, counselors have to develop curriculums and lesson plans while researching data to determine what school problems need to be addressed.

"We want counselors to spend 85 percent of their time working with kids," said Judy Bowers, a retired TUSD counselor who now works as a consultant to school districts.

In Sunnyside, high school counselors track scores from Advanced Placement tests, eighth-grade algebra grades and how many students complete financial paperwork, said Utter, the district's director of college readiness.

The district has a crisis-response team that deals with traumatic events in Sunnyside and assists other districts, she said.

Sunnyside still has elementary school counselors, but it could cut some of those positions if voters don't approve a budget override in November.

"It's not like academics and counseling are separate from each other," she said. "There's really an integration between the role of the counselor in all of our schools and supporting academic achievement."

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"There's really an integration between the role of the counselor in all of our schools and supporting academic achievement."

NJ Utter, Sunnyside School District director of college readiness

Contact reporter Jamar Younger at jyounger@azstarnet.com or 573-4242. On Twitter: @JamarYounger