This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Kevin McCorry for NewsWorks
In the halls of any public school in Philadelphia and behind each classroom door, you’re bound to meet students brimming with the stress and strain of life in a big city.
At South Philadelphia High School, 11th grader Amber Holmes dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon and getting out of a neighborhood where, she says, people live by looking over their shoulders — worried that the next shot fired is coming for them.
"It’s back-to-back crime every day, every week," Holmes said, "and then you be thinking like, ‘Am I next?’ or whatever. Or ‘Is my brother next?’ or ‘Is my cousin next to get shot?’"
Antonio Nanthavongsa was sent to a disciplinary school a few years back for a violent outburst he says stemmed from repressing a difficult childhood memory.
"I knew it was wrong what I did, but it’s like, I couldn’t control myself. I blacked out," he said. "I couldn’t remember what happened till like they told me about it."
Having learned from that experience, he says he keeps his cool better now but is currently dealing with the recent loss of a close family member.
"Most people don’t know," he said, "but I’m like emotionally scarred, and like mentally scarred."
Another student, after classes one day, lingered in the classroom of a favorite teacher. She asked for and received the teacher’s cell phone number and disappeared back into Southern’s cavernous halls.
The teacher says the girl is homeless, searching day to day for the safety of a bed.
These types of portraits aren’t news to anyone who has spent time talking with many of the 134,000 students in the Philadelphia School District. Almost every child can give an insight to the harrowing challenges that, like a perpetually looming backdrop, hang on the stage of students’ lives.
But this year, after severe budget cuts reduced the city’s guidance counseling corps by more than half, many parents, students and school staff fear that students like these will be left to shoulder these enormous weights on their own much more often.
As the cash-strapped District wades its way through its second week of classes, more than half of city schools don’t have a full-time counselor, and those that do face counselor-to-student ratios far exceeding expert recommendations.
Ratios out of control
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.
South Philadelphia High School now has two guidance counselors for a projected enrollment of 1,500 students — a ratio that’s actually much more favorable than those elsewhere in the District.
Central High School has two counselors for 2,300 students. At Northeast High School, it’s one counselor for 3,000. There, the principal decided to hire an additional assistant principal instead of an additional counselor.
Most traditional city schools, though, don’t have even one full-time counselor. The District has scheduled a group of 16 "itinerant counselors" to spend the school year roving around 115 schools (55 percent of the District). Each counselor will serve seven or eight schools.
That’s 16 counselors for 48,000 students. A ratio of 1 to 3,000.
"It’s a nightmare," said one itinerant counselor who didn’t want his/her name used for fear of reprisal from the District.
The counselor said the first week of school meant 80 miles of driving around the city, on top of the daily commute — only to set up in offices that often lacked phones, computers and basic office supplies. The counselor’s stated mission was to assess the needs of students legally requiring special attention from the District. The counselor said it felt like being made a pawn in the District’s attempt to avoid a slew of lawsuits.
"This isn’t really being a school counselor," the itinerant counselor said, "because school counselors do school counseling programs."
Instead, intinerant counselors will have to hustle from school to school without time to eat lunch — trying to get a handle on the 3,000 students looking for help with everything from high school and college applications to emotional crises.
"The positive thing so far is that I’ve lost a few pounds," the itinerant said sarcastically.
And even though all itinerants are dual-certified to work in both elementary schools and high schools, this counselor worries about itinerants being asked to work with students from grade levels with which they don’t have recent professional involvement.
"Counselors have been put into positions where, yes, they have certifications," said the itinerant, "but they don’t have experience with current processes."
Caroline Watts, senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, specializes in developing healthy educational environments for children and youth.
"The [itinerant] counselor’s skills aren’t being used in any way that builds resilience and stability in the community of the school," said Watts, who also oversees Penn’s partnership with West Philadelphia’s Lea Elementary. "It’s just about one or two quick things, and that’s a huge loss."
Without adequate counseling resources, Watts says, schools function on a "crisis basis," and not on a "proactive basis."
"All the things that we know are effective to help support kids socially and emotionally and academically need to be put into place proactively before things that we think of as problems start to happen," she said.