by Senator Patricia Jones
Assistant Senate Minority Whip
As Utah’s students reach the high school graduation line, many are asking themselves questions about what school to choose, which degree to pursue and what career path to follow. Sadly, our current system has neither the time nor the tools to supply the answers or the necessary guidance to our students.
I was shocked in a recent legislative committee meeting to hear that on average, there are more than 400 students per guidance counselor in Utah. The problem is even worse in high-growth areas such as South Jordan Middle School where 649 students are assigned to one counselor.
Such impossible ratios leave overloaded counselors with only an average of 10 minutes to spend with a single student in an entire year of high school. That’s simply not enough time to create a relationship or give meaningful guidance.
At the same time, the duties of counselors have become muddied as they are overburdened by undefined tasks and test administration. The bottom line is these counselors don’t have the time to offer tailored goals and plans for students with varying interests.
That leaves counselors dishing out the same university plan for all students, largely ignoring other career paths or vocational training that is much needed in the workforce.
We need to dedicate them to their purpose, which is to help our students become the best they can be and to prepare them to fill the niches that our future marketplace demands.
I’m working on a comprehensive guidance counselor bill for the 2009 Legislative session, but the solution will take more than government action and state money. We all need to start talking to each other about how to give our students better answers and guidance. It’s an effort that will require the cooperation of teachers, parents, students, counselors, government representatives and business leaders.
The problem is these groups don’t know how to help because the structure isn’t set up. Likewise, parents want to help but they’re not sure where the shortages are, and students are just going day to day trying to get good grades. Someone needs to take leadership in this to connect all the pieces together.
Mayor Dennis Webb of Holladay is a visionary in this kind of collaboration. He has set up his own city education committee and encourages city council members and parents to get involved. Perhaps we as a state could take a queue from Mayor Webb’s efforts and create a similar statewide education advisory council to facilitate discussions between schools.
Helping our students make more informed choices also means starting the conversation much earlier than high school. Many parents wait until their children are in 11th grade to start thinking about college. At the final hour, they try to help their children the best they can, only to realize they haven’t saved enough money, their kids haven’t taken the right courses and they have no idea what the market demands are.
More informed curriculum choices as early as elementary school could help students better prepare. If engineering is predicted to be a hot job market in the coming years, a young student could load up on math courses or a customized high school curriculum to ensure he or she has the proper prerequisites for college.
Currently, parents don’t know what kind of jobs will be available for their sons and daughters when they enter the workforce. A systemic approach could get this information to parents, who can then guide their children into classes, schools and jobs that will be viable in the future.
The business community is key to this system-wide approach because they are in the best position to predict future economic needs. They know what skills are needed, which areas of the market are inundated and which ones will be searching for new talent.
As a member of the Salt Lake Chamber Board and a professional focus group moderator, I hear from business leaders all the time about students who have a degree but don’t have the kind of qualifications that companies want. They may be lacking in anything from technical skills to common workplace etiquette.
Business leaders tell me they are excited to help these students get a better grasp on what they can do now to prepare to be a viable member of Utah’s workforce.
If we work as one, we can ensure students are moving into the path that is fulfilling for them, but also meeting our state’s economic demands. Together, we can give our students the answers they need.