KUT and our city hall reporting partner the Austin Monitor are looking at needs that have typically been paid for by the state, but have become local responsibilities. Some call them unfunded mandates. KUT News and the Austin Monitor will look at key examples of that interaction in our series, “The Buck Starts Here.” Today, Tyler Whitson and Kate McGee take on education.
Jennifer Mullins is sitting in her office at Eastside Memorial High School when a staff member comes in and asks for a stress ball. There’s a student outside that needs help. Mullins walks out the door and immediately takes control.
"Hey bud, hey! Stress ball! Just breathe," Mullins says. The student was having a negative reaction to a medication.
Mullins is one of two school counselors at Eastside Memorial High School who handles both emotional and academic support. Every student there is labeled at-risk. Mullins says she spends half her time dealing with students' needs outside the classroom.
“Let’s say, for instance, we have a student who has some suicidal thoughts," Mullins says. "I’m with that kid for five hours, three hours or however long it takes to get the support.”
Mullins isn’t just responsible for helping kids get through the day. She, like other counselors in Austin and across the state, also has to help kids decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives. And since the legislature passed House Bill 5 in 2013 — a law that reduced testing and overhauled graduation requirements in public schools — the state has assigned more and more responsibility to school counselors and some are struggling to make the grade.
Mullins has to manage three graduation plans that are phasing out and three new ones that started this year. She also needs to help eighth graders planning to enter Eastside next year choose one of five endorsements: STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), Business and Industry, Public Service, Fine Arts and multidisciplinary.
Mullins has to know them all, explain them to parents and students, and guide students toward the endorsement that's right for them. One challenge: a lot of students haven’t thought about their future.
“We have students where we’re like, 'Okay, what do you want to do after high school?' And they’ll say ‘I have no idea, because, frankly, no one's every asked me that question before,'" Mullins says.
Not only does she help students already at Eastside Memorial — Mullins also has to help eighth-graders entering next year choose their endorsement before they even get in the door at Eastside.
"They’re really young," Mullins says. "A lot of our kids want to be NBA stars, they want to play pro ball. You don’t have to burst that little bubble of theirs, but you want them to be realistic."
But Mullins says it's important for them to start thinking about the future and she loves helping students who need guidance, whether that's with choosing a class or dealing with a problem at home.
"I really wanted to help the kids who were having challenges and didn't have anyone to talk to," Mullins says. "I wanted to be the person they can rely on and be able to help through the high school process, because it's a tough one."
The real challenge for counselors is behind the scenes: more paperwork. Mullins says the biggest challenge is getting those endorsement sheets with a parent signature, especially if they weren't with the kids at the time they were going over choice sheets and chose their endorsement.
That process must be repeated if a student decides to change their endorsement. This year, about 15 percent of Eastside’s freshman class changed their endorsements. That number could only increase as more incoming students enter high school with the new graduation plan.
More paperwork for Mullins means longer hours or less time with students. Mullins wouldn’t say the new law has affected her ability to meet with students one on one. But Austin ISD superintendent Paul Cruz admits it’s harder for counselors district wide to meet with students on top of all the new responsibilities.
"Do [counselors] want to do that? Absolutely," Cruz says. "A time in a day to do that? Is going to be a little more challenging."
Some Austin high schools have nearly 3,000 students and that could be around 500 students per counselor. The district doesn’t have the money to hire more high school counselors to help with academics and House Bill 5 didn't come with additional funding.
Eastside Memorial's student population is smaller than other high schools in AISD, but it's filled with high-needs students and the emotional support is constant so counselors there aren't doing any less work.
Eastside also has a highly mobile population, which could cause additional problems.
"If a student was there in October or is not there in December or a student was not with us and then comes in in January, but now has to fill out choice sheet. Well, we have to then start again," Cruz says.
It's unclear how mobility might affect a student's ability to receive a particular endorsement. Mullins says for those students — or students who keep changing their endorsement — the multidisciplinary endorsement could be the best option.
Another problem the district is trying to solve is how to make sure students have multiple ways to get a certain endorsement and aren't limited to the one particular set of courses their school offers.
Every AISD high school offers every endorsement, but every school can’t offer every possible class to get that endorsement. Next year, the school district is hoping to start a student sharing pilot program. Mullins says student sharing means students stay at their neighborhood schools, but the district would allow them to take the courses they want at a different school.
“It could be that a student who goes to Eastside goes to Crockett [High School] for a couple periods a few times a week to have that class that isn’t offered at their home school."
But that comes with additional costs, including transportation. Another option is more online courses, but those cost money, too.
AISD is also unsure how much all of the changes will cost the district. Last year, the district allocated $1.7 million specifically for HB 5. Next week, the school board is scheduled to present its preliminary budget for next school year. It’s expected to include another deficit.