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No shortage of counselors at Promise Academies

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Due to the District’s fiscal crisis, most schools in Philadelphia are suffering a counselor drought. But Promise Academies are not among them.

In fact, the 12 Promise Academies — the District’s in-house turnaround schools — have 19 counselors, which amounts to 15 percent of the 126 counselors available to all 220 or so District-run schools.

More than half the District’s schools — 115 of them, with a population of more than 48,000 students — are sharing 16 "itinerant" counselors who travel from school to school and have caseloads averaging about 3,000 students each.

In the Promise Academies, which have a combined enrollment of about 8,000, the average caseload works out to one counselor per about 420 students, much closer to the recommendations of the American School Counselor Association.

Barry Elementary School, for instance, which has 800 students, has three counselors, as does the 1,400-student Edison High School.

Three Promise Academies have two counselors: Martin Luther King and West Philadelphia high schools, and Ethel Allen Elementary.

The rest have one counselor each: Strawberry Mansion High, Clemente Middle, and Bryant, Cayuga, Dunbar, McMichael, and Potter-Thomas elementaries.

The whole point of establishing Promise Academies is to give them extra resources to help them educate some of the District’s most needy students in many of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. In addition, several of them are receiving students this year from other schools that were closed.

District Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski said that Promise Academies were allocated one counselor as a Promise Academy and one counselor through "general allocation." Any school with more than 600 students was also assigned a counselor, which means that each Promise Academy with an enrollment above 600 got two.

"The Promise Academy model is a turnaround model, and the additional resources are supposed to be supplemental in nature," Stanski said. "We didn’t want to supplant the regular counselor allotment with the Promise Academy allotment."

He wasn’t sure, however, how Barry Elementary, with 800 students, got three counselors. "It’s probably an oversight," Stanski said. With the ongoing "leveling" process — in which teachers and other personnel are shifted around in mid-October based on actual enrollment six weeks into the year — that is likely to change, he said.

Since the Promise Academy model was started in 2009 by former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the nature of the extra resources and the model itself have been fluid. The heart and most expensive piece of the model — a longer school day and year, as well as Saturday school — has been abandoned.

And several former Promise Academies, including Vaux, Germantown and University City high schools, have been closed, in part because of continuing low achievement.

For schools that are low income and low achieving, making them Promise Academies is the alternative to turning them over to charter organizations under the Renaissance Schools initiative, Stanski pointed out.

In addition to being guaranteed at least one counselor regardless of size, the Promise Academies this year have a math coach, a reading coach, and a school improvement liaison.

The schools also get a uniform supplement for both teachers and students. Teachers get summer professional development as well as a retention bonus for staying in the assignment for three years.

When Promise Academies started, teachers were paid more because since they had a longer school day and year. However, because they no longer are open longer than other schools, that additional pay has disappeared.

"We didn’t have enough money this year to implement the full model," said Stanski.

Each Promise Academy is also getting an extra allotment of $65 per student, said District spokesperson Raven Hill. The total extra amount being spent on them is $7.8 million.

Five of the Promise Academies are also receiving students from other schools that closed — King, Strawberry Mansion, Clemente, Ethel Allen, and Potter-Thomas. Superintendent William Hite said he always intended to give extra resources to the so-called "receiving" schools.

Several, including King and Clemente, have more than a quarter of their students in special education. Edison High, with three counselors, has a quarter in special education and a quarter who are English language learners.

Barry, however, is not a designated receiving school. According to District data from last year, it did not have an especially high special-education population and had virtually no English language learners.

But all of the Promise Academies, including Barry, have economically disadvantaged populations in excess of 90 percent.

To help make ends meet and close a gap of $304 million, the District laid off nearly 4,000 workers, including all 283 counselors, during the summer. So far, it has called back about 1,600 employees, among them 126 counselors. The District did not get all the resources it requested from the city and state and is still negotiating with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers for $133 million in concessions, including pay cuts averaging 10 percent. The District says the concessions are necessary to bring back more personnel into the schools, including counselors.

PFT president Jerry Jordan, adamant that his membership will not take pay cuts, also called it "criminal" that not all schools have counselors.

"I don’t want to deprive the kids in Promise Academies from services, but every child deserves to have a counselor or counselors in their schools," he said. "Every one of our schools are needy and all children in Philadelphia have promise and deserve the support of a school counselor."

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