Guidance counselors in Philly schools ‘barely making it, if not drowning’

     Thu Tran, a guidance counselor for Bok Technical, says she is still getting calls from students who need her help with college applications. (NewsWorks File Photo)

    Thu Tran, a guidance counselor for Bok Technical, says she is still getting calls from students who need her help with college applications. (NewsWorks File Photo)

    What does $45 million mean to the Philadelphia School District?

    Not enough.

    That was the unanimous feeling from the group of school guidance counselors who gathered Wednesday evening to discuss what they’ve seen in Philadelphia’s traditional public schools so far this year.

    Last week, after Gov. Tom Corbett announced that he would release an additional $45 million to the district, Philadelphia schools Superintendent William Hite said he’d immediately begin recalling 400 employees. Of that number, he said, 80 would be guidance counselors.

    “It’s a Band-Aid in a gaping wound that’s just not going to make much of a difference,” said Tatiana Olmedo, guidance counselor at Central High School.

    Olmedo is one of only two counselors for Central’s 2,400 students – 577 of whom are seniors attempting to navigate a path to post-secondary education.

    “We are barely making it, if not drowning, on certain days,” said Olmedo, a 13-year district veteran.

    At last week’s news conference, Hite said the rehiring process would give the district an average of one counselor for every school, but he acknowledged that there would still be schools without a full-time counselor.

    The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students. Counselors on the ground will tell you that 250 would be ideal, but that 500 is the line where services truly start to diminish.

    Through the first six weeks of school, 16 “itinerant” counselors have been responsible for 48,000 students in 115 of the district’s schools – an average of 3,000 per counselor.

    Each of these roving counselors has been tasked with shuffling between up to eight schools each and put in the difficult position of having to forge trusting relationships on the run.

    The school district has not yet said if recalling 80 counselors would decrease the number of itinerant counselors serving the city’s schools.

    District spokesman Fernando Gallard said that information will be released Monday.

    Pawns in the game

    One itinerant counselor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “I don’t feel I can service any of my eight schools well.”

    The counselor, who’s responsible for 3,477 students, has been working while sick for two weeks – falling asleep each night in front of the computer trying to catch up on email.

    The counselor feels like a pawn used by the district in an attempt to avoid lawsuits from students who have counseling services written into their legally protected Individualized Education Plans.

    But no matter how many hours a day the itinerant works, students are not getting the services they need.

    At the one of the schools where the counselor is stationed, the counselor hasn’t even met with “most” of the kids who have counseling written into the IEP.

    “Well, we just have to hope that the parents don’t start suing,” the counselor said sarcastically.

    Silent consequences

    Many of the counselors and counseling advocates at Wednesday night’s meeting stressed the “silent consequences” that staffing shortages are having in schools across the city.

    Most affected, they said, are students from families lacking the wherewithal to self-advocate – often students who are homeless, immigrants or have special needs.

    Counselors said they often come to the aid of homeless students through their knowledge of the McKinney-Vento Act (the federal law that provides funding for shelters), but without trained professionals in schools, they say these services are at risk.

    It’s the same for special-needs students hoping to get into the the district’s top-performing magnet schools, they said. The district’s LeGare Consent Decree is written to ensure that special-needs students aren’t shut out from the city’s best educational opportunities.

    But, again, for students in schools lacking full-time counselors, the group wondered how many special-needs familes would be able to navigate the system on their own.

    Phoning it in

    Thu Tran spent 21 years as a guidance counselor in the Philadelphia School District – 19 at Olney High School and the last two at Bok Technical.

    At the end of last year, the school district closed Bok and handed pink-slips to Tran and every other counselor in the district.

    When counselors were later recalled, the district suspended a section of the school code so that staff could be placed without regard to seniority.

    Proponents of the code-suspension argued it would enable principals to advocate for the staff they deemed most necessary to their schools.

    Tran said counselors who were cut from closing schools did not fare well. No principal to advocate, no job.

    It also hasn’t gone well, she said, for her former Bok students, many of whom who’ve been sent to South Philadelphia High School.

    Even though she’s unemployed, Tran, who is of Vietnamese descent, said she’s been receiving calls from college-hopeful former students who’ve relied on her in the past for her bilingual language skills.

    “I’ve been talking to them over the phone, telling them what they need to do, and most of my students who call me are seniors, and they said they’re not getting the help from South Philly High,” Tran said.

    Officials from South Philadelphia High School could not be reached for comment on this issue.

    Since the $45 million infusion, Tran’s been hoping she’ll be one of the 80 counselors to be rehired, but said both her union (The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers) and the district’s human resources department have been unhelpful.

    “I’m just very confused. I just wish somebody could give me at least an answer,” she said.

    Simply not enough

    Even at a high-performing magnet school such as Central, the “silent consequences” of the counselor shortage has had an impact on students.

    Tatiana Olmedo said students aren’t “getting what they need” because “we can simply not meet with every single student.” 

    Olmedo said she has a two-week waiting list for students wanting to meet with her to discuss the college application process.

    Without additional support, Olmedo said it won’t be possible to write recommendations or revise acceptance essays for every senior.

    But it’s not just seniors who are being lost in the shuffle.

    Olmedo said freshmen – who come from more than 150 schools throughout the city – often struggle when arriving at Central.

    “We have some students who were the best and the brightest [at their former schools], but now they’re experiencing failure for the very first time, and their whole identity is wrapped around being great achievers,” said Olmedo. “Now they have to figure out how to get help and they don’t know how.”

    But with two counselors for 2,400 students, problems like these simply fall by the wayside.

    “Most of the time we feel defeated,” Olmedo said. “We know that we don’t have the power to change it.”

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