New Math: 23 (mental health counselors) = 36?

Betty BeanKnox Scene

There’s never a good time to cut back on support services for kids, but given that today’s students are under more pressure to perform than ever before, news of reductions to a program that places mental health counselors in Knox County Schools is worrisome.

Last year, Helen Ross McNabb Center placed a counselor in each of Knox County’s 36 middle and high schools. This year, the agency is providing 23.

And it’s worse than worrisome, if we are to believe the boasts out of Nashville and Washington that we are living in a time of unprecedented plenty.

Last week this column dealt with issues surrounding the suicide of 16-year-old Farragut High School sophomore Will Bannister, who killed himself in 2017 after a series of problems at Knox County’s highest achieving high school. There was a lot of response to this story, much of which came from Farragut parents and students who talked about being channeled into advanced placement classes they didn’t want to take, saddled with long hours of homework and pushed beyond their endurance. Add the occasional active shooter drill to the mix and it’s unsurprising that kids are feeling stressed.

And don’t think it’s just a Farragut problem. We heard from parents and students from all over Knox County. High-stakes testing, highly standardized curricula and teaching to the test are in force for students of all ages in every public school in the state. Not even kindergartners are spared.

School board member Tony Norman, who taught at Farragut and West high schools before he retired, took the news that McNabb is reducing the number of counselors it’s providing to the Knox County middle and high schools out of the abstract:

“We’re all concerned about emotional issues in the high schools and the suicide issue,” he said at last week’s school board meeting. “What are we doing about this?”

Norman said he wants to make sure that someone at KCS is looking for early warning signs.

School board chair Terry Hill, a retired school psychologist, is concerned about the impact of withdrawing services from students who were receiving them.

“I have some real ethical concerns,” Hill said. She’s worried about what’s going to happen if services are withdrawn from students who were being counseled last year, and said that she’s already heard from one school in her district that is worried about these kids.

Hill and Norman were reassured by administrators present that the school system will fill in the gaps, and Chief Academic Officer Jon Rysewyk said that KCS staff had worked with McNabb officials to mitigate the losses, which he said were caused when TennCare reimbursements were inadequate to pay the bills.

This Thursday, Knox County Schools provided the following statement listing the counseling services still available:

“Knox County Schools has been working with Helen Ross McNabb since last November to provide eligible students in all middle and high schools with additional counseling services. We are pleased our partnership will continue this school year with 23 counselors.

“These services represent another layer of support for our students. Knox County Schools employs 34.5 elementary school counselors, 40 middle school counselors, 62 high school counselors, 28.5 social workers, 11 therapists and 3 case managers. While the McNabb counselors represent fewer counselors than last year, each middle and high school will have access to a counselor determined by caseload at that school. We have been assured that the number of counselors provided by McNabb will increase, with the referral needs of the school.”

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