During her first year as an elementary school counselor in Oklahoma, Eryn Wallis spent Wednesdays teaching guidance lessons in a rotation that included PE, art and music classes. There was no assistant principal at Freedom Elementary in Sapulpa, which has about 500 students, so Wallis also had to do administrative tasks like coordinating testing and meetings for special education plans.
These are all duties the American School Counselor Association deems inappropriate for school counselors. Wallis got her principal certification to fill them.
Wallis’ favorite days were spent helping students who needed support. She could pick them up from class to take walks outside or lay on the floor to take deep breaths and look at the ceiling. She was also the person on staff who handled chronic absenteeism, child custody issues, and suspected abuse and neglect.
“When a school counselor is not available, it can be difficult on the student, and it can be difficult on other staff to figure out how to handle a situation,” she said.
Unlike neighboring Arkansas and Texas, Oklahoma doesn’t have mandatory school counselor-to-student ratios or require counselors to spend a minimum amount of time on direct and indirect services. Oklahoma requires counseling services in elementary schools, but not necessarily by a counselor. The state does require middle and high schools to have counselors.
Wallis left Oklahoma in 2020 and now works as a school counselor in Arkansas, where the pay is about the same. But she said money doesn’t matter if school counselors don’t feel respected.
Oklahoma is facing a critical shortage of school counselors and hasn’t increased state funding to help fix the problem. The state’s student-to-counselor ratio was 398:1 at the end of 2022, while the American School Counselor Association recommends 250:1. The Oklahoma Legislature rejected State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister’s requests for around $58 million to hire more school counselors each of her last three years in office between 2018 and 2021.
State Superintendent Ryan Walters, who took office in 2023, didn’t ask for any additional funding to hire more counselors in his budget request this year. There are also no plans to replace millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funding the state used to hire more counselors that will expire at the end of this coming school year. The Frontier reached out multiple times to Walters for comment but didn’t receive a response before publication.
Oklahoma is giving educators raises between $3,000 and $6,000 this year, increasing starting pay for school counselors to $40,991. But counselors, who must have a master’s degree, still only receive about $1,000 a year more than teachers with bachelor’s degrees.
School counselors told The Frontier they need more funding, higher pay and appreciation for their unique roles.
Counselors juggle multiple roles
More than a week after teachers went home for the summer, four counselors stayed hard at work in their offices at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa. The counselors each have a caseload of over 300 students, giving guidance on academics, college, jobs and social-emotional learning.
These services are balanced with classroom time, one-on-one enrollment meetings, data management, and booking visits for college recruiters.
“I don’t know how we ever, if we ever, meet 80% face-to-face with students,” said Gina Hansen, who counsels 10-12 grade students.
It’s common for school counselors to juggle multiple roles in Oklahoma. Only 67% of counselors in the state work full-time in one school, and 22% are assigned to multiple schools across grade levels, according to Oklahoma staffing data. Another 10% of school counselors are also teachers.
In 2020, Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, introduced Senate Bill 1381 to protect school counselors’ time. The bill would have prohibited counselors from serving as test coordinators and required state assessment vendors to pay for sufficient staff to cover testing responsibilities. But the bill failed in committee after lawmakers raised concerns about its application in schools.
“Even teachers and former administrators in education that were on that committee, their biggest problem with my bill was if school counselors don’t do it, who’s gonna do it?” Boren said.
Before she was elected, Boren worked as a school counselor in Oklahoma schools. Working at Little Axe High School between 2009 and 2010, Boren said she spent 20% of her contracted time on testing. This is another role the American School Counselor Association considers inappropriate for school counselors.
No money to replace federal relief funds that helped hire counselors
In 2021, Oklahoma directed $35.7 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to help hire 201 counselors and other support staff for 181 school districts. The funds could help cover half of counselors’ pay and benefits for three years. But there’s no state plan to continue funding those jobs once the program expires at the end of the 2023-24 school year.
Pretty Water Public School, which serves pre-kindergarten to 8th-grade students in Sapulpa, didn’t have a dedicated school counselor. The school received $96,000 in COVID-19 relief money over three years for a full-time counselor. But the money didn’t quite cover the cost.
Trish Hamilton, an administrator for the district, told The Frontier that the school only had enough funds to hire a counselor for one year before eliminating the job. Pretty Water has now returned to contracting out for counseling services as needed.
Former State Department of Education school counselor specialist Sarah Kirk, who left her job in June, said she heard from many districts that the federal relief money was vital. She fears Oklahoma’s student-to-counselor ratio will only grow as funding comes to an end.
“We’ve tried really hard to help school districts make that sustainable, but we know that if funding continues to get cut, something’s gotta go,” Kirk said. “Unfortunately, often we see that, and these are considered extra positions — although, I don’t think that’s true.”
A “nicety versus a necessity”
Studies show that students with access to school counselors have better academic and behavioral outcomes and improved college and career readiness. But 10-12 grade counselor Mary Beth Lykins said she feels like she and her coworkers at Booker T. Washington are always fighting for recognition.
Jennifer Sack, a 10-12 grade counselor at Booker T. Washington, said she and her colleagues have advocated against legislation that could dictate how they do their jobs. In 2022, she successfully fought to keep language out of a bill at the Oklahoma Legislature that would have required counselors to tell parents if they planned to give students materials related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
School counselors are also sometimes tasked with teaching lessons on kindness and conflict resolution, a practice sometimes called social-emotional learning. Some conservative Oklahoma lawmakers have equated such lessons with political indoctrination.
Sen. Shane Jett, R-Shawnee, introduced a bill in 2022 that would have outlawed social-emotional learning in public schools. The bill died in session, but Walters later equated social-emotional learning to “far-left beliefs,” saying such materials were inappropriate in public schools.
Sack said she and others often feel their jobs are seen as a “nicety versus a necessity.” Kirk, Wallis and all of Booker T. Washington’s counselors said there is a lack of professional development opportunities geared toward counselors. They’ve been lumped into training focused on teachers instead.
Lykins said she’s happy about Oklahoma’s recent pay increase for educators, but she had to work 25 years before reaching the state’s current starting pay of about $40,000.
“Not that I would want anybody to start below what I started at. But that’s how bad it is,” Lykins said.
Sack said the state could improve its recruitment of school counselors by rewarding staff who have more training and education with better pay. Counselors at Booker T. Washington like Hansen, who are licensed professional counselors, could pursue other higher-paying jobs with their experience. But they stay because they say they love their students.
“It’s crazy here, and there’s a lot of pressures going on here, but I wouldn’t enjoy this, I wouldn’t be in right now at work if I didn’t really want to be here,” Lykins said. “And I do really want to be here.”
But as Oklahoma prepares to lose funding for 201 counselors, emergency certifications are trending upward. According to the most recent data, Oklahoma’s emergency-certified counselors have jumped 39% from 89 for the 2017-2018 school year to 124 in the 2020-2021 school year.
Districts have one more year to determine whether they have enough funds to support the salaries of the counselors they hired through the federal grant.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Eryn Wallis’ job. It has been corrected.