School counselors are essential to the pursuit of happiness

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These three well-known words were written down by our county’s founders as examples of “unalienable rights” in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration also states that governments are created to help protect these rights. I bring up this brief history lesson because lately I think we as a society have dropped the ball when it comes to allowing our children the pursuit of their own happiness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five children in the U.S. shows signs or symptoms of a mental health disorder. That means that in an average class, five of them could be struggling with some very grown-up issues – anxiety, depression or even substance abuse. Our kids are in crisis, and our schools simply aren’t equipped to handle all of their problems adequately. They’re not equipped because the average student-to-counselor ratio in Minnesota is 748 students to 1 counselor. That’s outrageous.

I had a meeting with a group of school counselors from Minnetonka recently and a story they told me has really stuck with me. A student confided to his counselor, “The only thing that makes me truly happy is when I’m on my cellphone.” A long-time counselor in my meeting also noted, “Kids seem lonelier now than they did 30 years ago.” This breaks my heart. Our counselors are rarely even counseling these days, too often these trusted professionals are dealing with one crisis after another.

But there is something we can do at the legislature. We must make more funding available on a permanent basis for schools to hire more counselors. Minnesota’s student-to-counselor ratio makes us the second worst state in the nation. The average ratio in the United States is 450-to-1; but the American School Counselor Association recommends an even lower ratio: just 250-to-1. And while the Eden Prairie School District is doing much better than the average Minnesota school – kids there still need more opportunities to sit down with counselors.

All of this leads me to the bill I’ve recently co-authored with my colleague and school counselors champion, Sen. Susan Kent (DFL-Woodbury). The bill would take the $13 million in one-time money the legislature invested last year, and make it a reccurring, annual state investment. This money can be used in the form of matching grant money for schools who hire additional school counselors or other student support staff. If we can get this bill passed, it could make a real difference in the lives of thousands of Minnesota kids.

As I used to teach my students in American history class, when asked about that pursuit of happiness clause in the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin replied: we do not guarantee Americans happiness, but merely its pursuit. If Minnesota students have better access to the help they need while in school, they will be better prepared to pursue their own happiness.

 

This article was published in the Eden Prairie News. 

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Steve Cwodzinski represents District 48 in the southwest Twin Cities metro.

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