As they help students deal with college anxieties, peer pressures and troubles at home, school counselors see another crisis emerging -- their own.
Assigned to handle the academic and emotional challenges of children, counselors find themselves stretched by caseloads that average 477 students, and questions about how best to serve all kids.
"I'm trying to do all the things I used to do, but I'm just not able to do it as well," said Sue-Ann Joy, head counselor at San Rafael High School, where district budget cuts have shrunk the advising staff to two full-time positions, or one per 500 students.
In her district, for example, that means less time for advising sophomores about college, less help for students getting D's, less monitoring to see why some kids are not in school.
Nationwide, the ratio of students to counselors is about 477 to 1, an average that has dropped since 1992 but is still almost twice the 250 to 1 recommended by the profession.
In states such as California -- which has slightly less than 1,000 kids per counselor, the heaviest load in the country -- counseling is again on the list of possible budget cuts.
Younger children receive less service, too, said counselor Laurie Telder, who covers four elementary schools in San Rafael, a bayfront city between San Francisco and California wine country.
"It is the slow burn," she said. "The kids that don't get the intervention -- oftentimes you will hear about them in high school, doing something serious, a suicidal attempt or a serious aggressive act on another student."
At the elementary school level, counselors help students start thinking about careers, build communication skills and develop healthy attitudes about themselves and their peers.
By high school, counselors assist students with study habits, financial aid, college recommendations, class schedules, transitions between grades and high-stakes tests. Yet they also help with eating disorders, girlfriend and boyfriend trouble, deaths of friends and pregnancies.
The people who set school budgets know the importance of counselors, but other areas get spending priority, such as helping children with disabilities and raising achievement in the poorest schools, said Dan Fuller, lobbyist for the National School Boards Association.
"It's about the education of children," he said, "and that has to be the priority."
These days, many counselors find themselves increasingly assigned to monitor cafeterias, bus zones and detention rooms. So, for school leaders, the American School Counselor Association has come up with a list of appropriate responsibilities for counselors -- interpreting student test results is fine, for example, but giving those tests is not.
On a typical day, Joy starts at 7 a.m. to see teachers before their classes and parents who are unable to come to San Rafael High at other times. She tries to spend most of her day with students, typically fitting eight to 10 sessions into every 90 minutes. Then, after school, she works until 7 p.m., usually to reach more parents.
After budget cuts in her district, the local education foundation raised $67,000 to partly restore counseling services; it hopes to raise twice as much for next year.
It may need to. As Joy heads toward retirement after 41 years, she has learned that the district may cut back to one full-time counselor at her school.
"How could a counselor establish any kind of relationship with a student under those circumstances?" school senior Lauren Farrer asked. "Seriously, can you remember 900 names?"
That personal relationship is critical, students said, as they talked of gaining confidence to be leaders and staying motivated. But access is getting tougher.
Public school counselors spend more time on college advising than on any other single issue, national surveys show. Yet the time crunch has shifted some of that college advising to community groups, often funded with private money to serve city and rural kids.
More than seven in 10 counselors say their ability to help students deal with the competitive college admission process has suffered because of budget cuts, the National Association for College Admission Counseling found in a 2003 survey.
Counseling has led to higher test scores when all students receive it, said John Carey, director of the National Center for School Counseling Outcome Research at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The benefits come in varied ways for students, he said, from developing time-management skills and dealing with peer pressure to understanding how their studies are relevant in the real world.
Counselors are also being asked to become leaders in school reform, including the push to set higher expectations for minorities, said Reese House, director of the National Center for Transforming School Counseling at the nonprofit Education Trust.
Students at San Rafael High School put counseling on par with English classes and libraries -- just something you need to run a school right.
"Being a high school student, it's really easy to get distracted with all the little things going around," said Jonathan Smith, a junior with hopes of a football scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "To have someone always watching you makes you want to do better. You just want to make her proud."