UF study: Florida faces shortage of Spanish-speaking school counselors
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Hispanics make up the largest minority in Florida schools, but administrators in eight out of 10 school districts say they don’t have enough Spanish-speaking counselors to serve the growing Hispanic population, according to a University of Florida study.
“Parents need to be able to talk to a counselor about their child’s progress,” said Professor Harry Daniels, chairman of the counselor education department at UF’s College of Education and a co-author of the study. “They need a place in the school system where they feel safe, where they feel their child’s needs are understood.
“These things may seem small, but they have a huge effect on academic success.”
Daniels and co-author Sondra Smith-Adcock, an associate professor of counselor education at UF, led a team that surveyed school services administrators in school districts across Florida on the counseling provided to Hispanic students. The researchers published their results in this month’s issue of the journal Professional School Counseling.
Fifty-nine percent of the administrators said their Hispanic students were at risk of not receiving needed counseling. Eighty-four percent said their district needed more Spanish-speaking bilingual counselors to address the personal needs of students, and 80 percent agreed that their district needed more Spanish-speaking counselors to guide students in making career decisions.
The results, researchers say, were worrisome but not surprising. Studies in the mid-1990s showed that while Hispanics made up one-eighth of Florida’s student population at the time, only 2 percent of school counselors were Hispanic. In the past decade, Smith-Adcock said, every single county has seen its Hispanic population increase by at least 30 percent – but there is no evidence of a similar increase in the number of Hispanic counselors.
“When school administrators think of the needs of Hispanic students, they tend to think in terms of language acquisition for new immigrants,” Smith-Adcock said. “There’s a whole stratum of services that is being missed.”
Hispanic students who face mental health issues may find it difficult to trust or open up to non-Hispanic counselors, and often need someone who speaks their first language, Smith-Adcock said.
However, mental health counseling is just one responsibility for counselors, Smith-Adcock said. They also help students define their career goals and navigate the increasingly complex academic world in a way that will help them achieve their goals. These services are particularly difficult to provide students who are new arrivals to the country, or whose parents are first-generation immigrants with limited English skills.
“Simply choosing electives is a new experience for many people in the Latino community,” said Jennifer Gonzales Young, a district-level bilingual counselor for Hillsborough County Public Schools. “In many Spanish-speaking countries, students take a prescribed schedule of courses, and don’t get to choose their classes. Some parents are overwhelmed by the system, and if it isn’t explained to them properly, their children can miss some important opportunities.”
Similar problems can arise when students apply to college, apply for financial aid or try to interpret the results of standardized tests, Young said.
Hillsborough County has one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the state. Young said there are an estimated 51,000 Hispanic children in Hillsborough County’s school system, and more than 36,000 speak Spanish as their first language. Until recently, Young was one of only a few Hispanic counselors serving that population.
“There seems to be a shortage of bilingual counselors everywhere in the state, and Hillsborough is just one example,” UF’s Daniels said. “At the elementary level, for instance, the ideal ratio is one counselor per 300 students. I don’t know of a single place in Florida that comes close to that ratio for Spanish-speaking students.”
UF is attempting to relieve the shortage. The College of Education recently completed a three-year, grant-funded program that brought 17 bilingual Hillsborough County teachers to UF to study for the educational specialist degree in counselor education. All of those teachers were Spanish-speaking and most were either of Hispanic origin or had prior experience living in a Spanish-speaking country.
Daniels said the project, titled “Consejeros: Levantando El Pueblo” (or “Counselors Lifting the Community”) was more than simply a degree program. Students followed a culturally relevant course of study designed to give equal focus to the three major influences in the life of Hispanic families: the school, the family and the community.
Based on the success of that project, Daniels and Smith-Adcock are considering the creation of a permanent distance education program that would allow bilingual teachers to study for a counselor education degree in the county where they work.
“Many bilingual teachers are already serving as a contact point between the school system and the families of their Hispanic students,” he said. “By becoming full-time counselors, they can fill that role more effectively, for more people.”