Kirsten Theobald walked into the General Assembly on Thursday with a powerful story to share.
As a second-year master’s student studying school counseling in the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, Theobald is in the midst of an internship at a local high school. Recently, administrators grew concerned when a student was absent from school for a few weeks.
“Because I’m more available than my supervisor, I was actually able to go with the social worker to the student’s house to talk,” Theobald said. There, she sat with the student for an hour and a half, listening to their concerns and counseling them about the resources available to help through their anxiety and mental health struggles.
When she returned to school on Monday, so did the student. “This student came up to me, gave me a hug, and said, ‘Thank you so much for coming to see me at my house,’” Theobald said. “They said it was really cool to see how much we wanted them to be in school. The student didn’t realize that people actually cared.”
Theobald’s story is just one of the many that UVA school counseling students shared with legislators on Thursday, as part of an effort to advocate for lower counselor-to-student ratios in Virginia.
Twenty-two students traveled to Richmond to join a group of nearly 200 school counselors, district supervisors and advocates for the Virginia School Counselor Association’s annual “Legislative Day,” a morning designated for lobbying state senators and delegates to support school counseling.
VSCA, Virginia’s chapter of the American School Counseling Organization, provides professional development, networking opportunities and advocacy for the role of the school counselor in Virginia. Assistant professor Julia Taylor, a former middle and high school counselor, has long been an active member of VSCA and currently serves as the organization’s assistant chairman of the board. She first invited her UVA graduate students to attend Legislative Day in 2018.
“I think it’s critical to be exposed to professional development and advocacy opportunities when they are in graduate school to learn that they can make a difference – not only inside, but also outside of their schools,” she said. “I want them to stay involved post-graduation and keep advocating for their profession and students.”
Interest in attending Legislative Day has grown each year. On Thursday, 22 UVA students gathered in downtown Richmond at 8:30 a.m. to collect their matching T-shirts and packets full of statistics and talking points. After a quick briefing, they broke into small groups and were set loose in the maze-like halls of the bustling General Assembly.
The students’ goal was to get their packets into the hands of as many legislators as possible – and to share their personal experiences as future school counselors and current interns working in schools. “They want to hear your stories,” Taylor said during the morning debrief.
Brett Welch, a school counselor at Harvie Elementary in Henrico County who chairs the VSCA’s Advocacy and Government Relations Committee, organized this year’s Legislative Day. The importance of this kind of one-on-one advocacy is often underestimated, she said. The role of a school counselor has evolved so much that misconceptions about the work are abundant. Where the job once focused on career and college guidance, today’s school counselors are licensed mental health professionals with master’s degrees who are specially trained to provide mental and behavioral support as well as crisis response in a school setting.
That expertise is critical. According to research, 70% to 80% of children who receive mental health services do so at school, and many counselors are on the front lines of trauma, abuse and poverty while juggling large caseloads. While the ASCA recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students, Virginia’s average ratio is nearly one for every 450 students.
As student safety and mental health have received increasing national attention in recent years, however, Taylor said momentum is building around support for school counselors. In 2019, the General Assembly approved $12 million in funding to hire more counselors and passed a bill requiring that all school counselors spend at least 80% of their time in direct counseling services with students, instead of non-counseling duties like proctoring exams or supervising the cafeteria.
This year, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam proposed $99.3 million to hire more school counselors. “Our children come to school with the burdens of everything else in their lives,” he said during his December address announcing the budget proposal. “When that includes conflict at home, or at school, it’s critical that our schools have trained staff that students in distress can turn to.”
On Thursday, students encouraged legislators to support this funding and reduce ratios. Between scheduled meetings, they hurried back and forth throughout the hallways working to reach as many senators and delegates from across the commonwealth as possible. Securing a few minutes for a face-to-face meeting was the goal – but even dropping off packets with an assistant will help get legislators the information they need to make informed decisions, Taylor said.
VSCA leadership said they appreciate the energy and enthusiasm that UVA students bring to the group. “They just jumped right in,” said Welch. “The legislators loved them, and they shared their internship stories, which were really powerful. If they had fear, they didn’t show it.”
Robert Jamison, a member of VSCA’s board of directors, said Legislative Day is a valuable outreach opportunity and a chance to connect some of the state’s top school counseling students with the people making critical decisions about their careers.
“Many counselors don’t get the opportunity, once they’re actually working within a school, to come out on a day like today,” he added.
As one of the only full-time, cohort-model, school counseling programs in the state, UVA students are uniquely positioned to be able to attend events like Legislative Day. The Curry School’s program is also centered around hands-on experience, with every student completing at least 700 hours working in a school setting – experience that gives them real stories to share.
At the end of the day, students said the experience was overwhelming at times, but ultimately empowering. First-year master’s student Elexus Mays said it was inspiring to connect with experienced school counselor advocates – and eye-opening to get a firsthand look at the legislative process, something she looks forward to sharing with her students.
One major highlight? At the end of their visit, state Secretary of Education Atif Qarni stopped by to snap a photo with the group and share a few words of thanks.
“We could not do this without you all,” he said. “It’s going to have a profound positive impact for years to come on our children.”