This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The District has said that, so far, it has recalled 126 of the 270 counselors that it had laid off, all but 10 of them by using some of the $50 million in additional funds that the city has promised to deliver as a contribution to helping close the District’s budget gap.
Although officials have not confirmed this, it appears that schools with fewer than 600 students were not allotted a full-time counselor. By looking at school enrollment projections from June, the Notebook calculated that only 85 of the District’s 212 schools have 600 or more students. Ten additional counselors were also assigned to Promise Academies, seven of which have enrollments below 600.
Barring more recent purchases of counselors by principals or special allotments, that still leaves more than half of the District’s schools, including half of the District’s 48 high schools, without a counselor — a situation that is unheard of in fully functional school systems.
"Most of the high schools will have a counselor," Superintendent William Hite said in an interview on Tuesday. "Some of the smaller ones do not, but will have counseling services."
He said there would be itinerant teams of counselors that would travel to different schools and provide services to students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). "Each counselor will have a caseload" of these students, he said.
The Notebook moved this week to a new office on 7th Street, south of Market Street, which happens to be just across the street from Constitution High School. So just before lunchtime Thursday, I took a walk over. Tom Davidson, the principal, was sitting in a chair in the reception area of his office. His brand new secretary, Bridget Fairburn, bustled around doing her job.
Davidson, a veteran of several districts, including Philadelphia, looked remarkably serene as he faced what he candidly described as a situation unlike any that he has ever faced.
Constitution High, a citywide admission school, has about 400 students and 100 seniors who are all college-bound.
Will he have a counselor? No. Will he have "counseling services," as the District has promised? "I know what I read in the papers," he said. "They said we’d have counseling services."
But in terms of hard information, he said, he’s been told nothing yet.
So in the meantime, he has arranged his roster to assign one of his multi-certified teachers to help seniors with college applications and pick up myriad other counseling duties. This is not ideal, he said, but this teacher "is so child-oriented, she’ll do anything to help kids."
His dean of students will also pitch in with crises.
Fairburn, who has 24 years in the District — most of them in an elementary school — looked up from her work. "What’s going to happen when we have a ‘mental’ situation?" she asked.
Students face crises every day, both she and Davidson said — suicidal ideation, thoughts of running away, sudden homelessness, you name it. At one time, the school had two counselors.
"I want to make it clear," Davidson said. "What I’ve put together is Plan B. It is a contingency to deal with emergencies. When kids need services, we’ll address it with the staff we have as best we can. But in no way does this situation replace the need for a full-time counselor."
In the meantime, he said, "I”m skeptical how the roving counseling is going to work. But we will take whatever assistance we can get."
The counselor he had last year, he said, Sarah Olds, was a "great counselor," he said. As far as he knows, she is still laid off.
Fairburn is very competent and she and Davidson are getting along, but she said she’d rather be back in her old school. Constitution’s regular secretary, Donna Granato, is still laid off. Granato was a Secretary III, with additional supervisory duties and administrative responsibilities. The Secretary III’s, who command a higher salary than those in the Secretary I classification, have not been called back.
"Let me put it this way," Davidson said. "We were thrilled when we heard that the secretaries would be returning to their own schools. And then the whole school was devastated when we were reinstated funds and we were told that we were precluded from upgrading to a Level III secretary so we could bring back Mrs. Granato."
The School District of Philadelphia faces an unprecedented situation – uncertainty over whether it will be in a position to open safe and functioning schools in September.
This feature, appearing each weekday, is an effort to highlight developments and motivate action as we get closer to the beginning of the school year. We encourage readers to send us information about both concerns and breakthroughs to firstname.lastname@example.org.