Shelton school counselors on block as COVID relief funds run out

'Our pre-pandemic numbers weren't acceptable'

Photo of Brian Gioiele
Superintendent of Schools Ken Saranich poses in front of the Board of Education offices in Shelton, Conn. Nov. 5, 2020.

Superintendent of Schools Ken Saranich poses in front of the Board of Education offices in Shelton, Conn. Nov. 5, 2020.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

SHELTON — The loss of federal grant money next fiscal year has the school district teetering on a financial cliff, according to Superintendent Ken Saranich.

And taking the hardest fall may be students in need of counseling support. 

The district has 15 counselors — six at Shelton High, three at the intermediate school, two specifically for Perry Hill School, one that covers both Mohegan Elementary and Perry Hill School, one split between Long Hill and Elizabeth Shelton schools, another split between Booth Hill and Sunnyside. 

But two of those jobs — along with two social workers and one school psychologist — may be in jeopardy for the coming fiscal year, since the district used federal pandemic relief grant funds to cover those hires. And that grant money ends with the end of the present school year. 

In all, over the past two years, $645,825 in grant money was used for staff, a large portion of that for the counselors, social workers and a school psychologist. 

“We are proud of our work,” said Erik Martire, K-12 school counseling curriculum leader, who oversees the district’s counselors. “Counselors are a daily need. We want to keep what we have and hopefully continue to add to what we have here. 

Martire, who has been in education for 25 years, 14 of those as a counselor, said the district is right now operating with the minimum support level with counselors. Prior to the new hires covered by the grant funds, he said counselors were overwhelmed. 

“Counselors are involved with every student, developing relationships with every student,” Martire said. 

Saranich said the American School Counselor Association recommends that schools maintain a ratio of 250 students per school counselor. 

Present ratios stand at one counselor per 280 students at Perry Hill School; one per 260 students at Shelton Intermediate; and one per 225 students at Shelton High. 

“We are very in tune with what is happening in society and its effects on children,” Saranich said. “The safety and security of our students is paramount, and we can’t efficiently get that done without the right people on staff — and that means the support of our school counselors.” 

Among the K-4 schools, the ratios are quite high, according to Martire. For Booth Hill, Elizabeth Shelton, Long Hill, and Sunnyside schools, the counselor to student ratio averages 1 to 700. And for the counselor who splits between Mohegan and Perry Hill covers approximately 575 students. 

What has exacerbated the situation, specifically at the high school at which Martire works, is the frequently revolving student population. He said 120 new students entered the high school last year with another 80 to 90 new students this year. 

The district has 9.5 school psychologist positions, and 7.5 social workers too, Saranich said. The job indicates the person splits the job.

The need for counselors has only grown in the pandemic's aftermath, Martire said. Years of remote learning and, in some cases, isolation, have had a detrimental impact on many students. 

“At all grade levels, pandemic brought uncertainty to families and children,” Martire said. “The negative impacts are undeniable. I know we are finding it harder to reengage students in school. 

The schools are seeing an increase in anxiety at all grade levels, he added.

“And that has created a strain that impacts everything they do," he said. "More students are seeking outside counseling. We need the ability to monitor and work with each of these students while also being there for all others. We need staff to do this properly.” 

Martire said counselors prepare programs for each grade level, from social emotional learning in younger grades to college and post-grad planning for high schoolers. 

“We develop 1-on-1 relationships with students,” Martire said. “That can be tough in a place like the high school with 225 students on one counselor’s caseload.” 

In grades K-4, counselors spent most of the time in the classroom, with a focus on social emotional curriculum. 

Similar teaching goes on with counselors in Perry Hill School. At Perry Hill and Shelton Intermediate schools, counselors spent significant time on student self-management, behavior and decision making in addition to their usual academic support. The high school focuses on academic growth, personal and social growth, and post-grad planning. 

“Counselors hold team meetings, one-on-ones with students and parents if needed,” he added. “We’re handling social emotional development concerns and crisis intervention. We need enough staff to be able to handle all of that while offering proactive programming, be available when needed for regular and urgent situations.” 

Martire said if the district were to go back to pre-pandemic student-to-counselor ratios, as an example, there would be 400 students per counselor at Perry Hill and Shelton Intermediate schools, and even higher at the K-4 level 

“Our pre-pandemic numbers weren’t acceptable,” he said. "Reverting back to those numbers would put a strain on the whole support staff and the district. We would see a decrease in programming, a decrease in monitoring of individual students, and less availability for urgent situations. That is a troubling thought.”