Imagine you're a student arriving at school to discover your heart rate spiking followed by an intense pain in your chest. As you begin to gasp for air you find that your throat has constricted and your mind is racing, struggling to control the body. Your soul aches and tears begin to roll down your cheek. Imagine, if you actually make it into class, trying to learn. This scenario has been a daily occurrence in our schools as mental health concerns and diagnosis have risen throughout the past decade.
As a school counselor at Milwaukie High School for the past 18 years, I was proud to advocate for the passage of the Student Success Act. I spoke out at the May 8 Day of Action to express the urgency of the mental health status of our youth, highlight our students' needs, bring light to the importance of the school counselor role and my belief that we are all capable of making positive change.
Milwaukie High School and the Milwaukie Academy of the Arts, a place that I love, is a diverse school community raised by hard-working, blue-collar families. Twenty-seven different languages are spoken and a robust LGBTQ student population exists here. 60% of our students qualify for the free lunch program and nearly a quarter of our students qualify for special education services. This makes our school community rich and full of daily challenges that range from simple academic issues to homelessness, mental health emergencies, suicide and other traumatic situations.
Fortunately, school counselors are uniquely positioned and trained to tackle these issues with students. School counselors develop and deliver culturally competent, trauma informed, social and emotional support programs school-wide to help each student fulfill their basic needs so that learning can be achieved in the classroom. We build on this learning by providing college- and career-planning opportunities to every student so that they can advance beyond their current situation and create a brighter future for themselves and their families.
However, my current caseload is 403 students. It is extremely challenging to provide these services to all my students. Despite my greatest effort, I am certain that some students are still in need. A school counselor deficit currently exists in Oregon. Each counselor's average caseload is 511 students, more than double the ratio of 1:250 recommended by the American School Counselor Association. Most elementary schools throughout the state only have one half-time counselor, if lucky enough to have one at all, and those individuals work in two different buildings so that they can receive full-time pay. This is a disservice to all our students that the Student Success Act will finally resolve.
Inspired by the students of Milwaukie, and with a shared commitment to making our children and their education the utmost priority, I joined with fellow educators, students and parents to call upon our legislators to be courageous and implement revolutionary change. Fully funding education will positively impact our youth and improve the future for all Oregonians.
Roberto Aguilar was Oregon's 2017 School Counselor of the Year and a 2019 ASCA National School Counselor of the Year finalist. He spoke at the Portland rally on the May 8 Day of Action, joining tens of thousands of educators to advocate for our students.