School counselor needs to be in the building

It’s no surprise that the applicant pool was limited when the Wrangell School District advertised for a new counselor to serve elementary, middle and high school students. It’s a big job for one person to work with 260 students. That includes providing career guidance, making health and psychological referrals, helping to manage student testing and assessments, and building relationships with staff, parents and the community.

That’s a lot to ask of one person, but that’s the reality of the district’s tight finances.

A small pool of applicants is not just a Wrangell problem. The challenge of hiring for school jobs across Alaska is similarly bleak. Several districts have been recruiting teachers from overseas to fill vacancies. At the start of the past school year, there were about 500 teacher vacancies across the state — up 20% from a year ago.

“We are struggling in the worst crisis Alaska has ever seen in terms of turnover. We can’t recruit teachers,” Lisa Parady, executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, told legislators this past session.

After just two years on the job, the Wrangell schools counselor opted not to return for next year, adding to turnover and requiring the district to recruit for a replacement. The administration last week recommended the school board approve a contract for remote counseling services in lieu of hiring a full-time, in-person staff member.

The hiring committee determined that the contractor candidate, most recently a counselor for a homeschool correspondence program who lives in Delta Junction, southeast of Fairbanks, was the best option.

Regardless of the hiring committee’s determination that Lindsay Pinkelman, who does business as Find a Way Consulting, was the most qualified applicant for the Wrangell job, an online, Zoom, phone and email counselor could never provide the same level of support and connection with students, staff and parents as someone living and working in Wrangell.

Citing those exact reasons, several parents and teachers passionately spoke at the May 20 school board meeting against a contract counselor.

While it’s essential to have a new counselor on the job before classes start in August, it’s just as important to get it right. The school board wisely tabled the proposed contract and will take more public comment at the June 3 board meeting.

Probably the immensity of the job, the low salary compared to other districts, the scarcity of available housing in Wrangell and other shortcomings are making it hard to recruit a counselor. But the May 20 contract proposal was giving up too much far too soon for students.

Regardless of the tight timeline before school starts, the school district needs to try harder and longer to find a good applicant for the counselor job who will live and work in Wrangell. The board should reject the contract proposal June 3.

-- Wrangell Sentinel


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