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Students urge focus on mental health, teacher resources
Examiner-Enterprise - 2/1/2021
Feb. 2—As public school districts navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, Oklahoma State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister is reaching out to students to gain insight into how their learning experiences have changed because of it.
Bartlesville High School seniors Samantha Simmons and Elijah Winter are members of an elite statewide Student Advisory Council formed six years ago to give high school students a voice in state education policy.
Ninety-seven high school students across Oklahoma met virtually with Hofmeister on Jan. 26, where the focus was on the stress the pandemic has put on both students and teachers. Students urged leaders to provide more mental health services for students and additional resources for teachers.
"I think it is crucial moving forward that our school also offer mental health services to make sure students are doing well and to help them succeed in their goals, not just academically," Winter said. "Essentially, this means a mental health counselor that will always be there in a place that is judgment-free for students to get help on an array of issues that they need."
With strained budgets, schools are unable to hire the number of counselors they need, and school counselor caseloads are high.
Under Hofmeister's leadership, the Oklahoma State Department of Education has repeatedly requested funding to equip schools with a "School Counselor Corps," which would provide enough counselors to meet the American School Counselor Association's recommended ratio.
The ASCA recommends a 250-to-1 student-to-counselor ratio. In Oklahoma, the ratio is 421-to-1.
The Oklahoma Legislature hasn't yet approved the budget request, but Hofmeister said many members are aware of the need.
"I want to see mental health support in every school building. It will help our younger kids who are going through great trauma and stress at home. They then act out in school but can't express why," Hofmeister said.
She said many kids in middle school and high school are desperate for a meaningful, trusting relationship with an adult, and often they find that in school.
"It could be their teacher or their counselor — that person they can connect with and get resources that they need — then refocus on academics," Hofmeister said. "If we don't think about the whole child, we're not going to see our kids reach their full potential."
Hofmeister again this year asked for $18.2 million for a School Counselor Corps in the OSDE budget for fiscal year 2022. The program would fund more counselor positions to close the student-counselor gap in schools.
"It was very eye-opening to hear about things going on in schools across the state and understanding that we are facing the same problems," Simmons said.
In response to the need for mental health services, the BHS Student Council has organized a school campaign to raise awareness for mental health issues. Simmons said she found it gratifying to know that student mental health is one of the top concerns for state education officials.
"It was amazing to hear that more resources are being allocated towards counseling and helping those that need it," she said.
Winter and Simmons also echoed other students across the state who worry that their teachers didn't have enough resources.
"Our teachers are squeezed right now when it comes to what they are able to do," Winter said. "They are having just as tough a time with the pandemic as students are."
Simmons said she is grateful to her teachers for putting so much time and energy into providing a great education. She said many teachers are open about not always having the resources they need.
"Watching their frustration of having to prepare lessons and adapt to teaching virtually, in addition to in-person, is honestly upsetting," Simmons said.
The students on the advisory council were recommended by their district superintendents. They represent rural, urban and suburban schools of all sizes across Oklahoma. Forty-four of the members also served on the council last year, including Winter.
(c)2021 the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise (Bartlesville, Okla.)
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