This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
For Juliane Dressner, the issue was simple: What if schools told students that they couldn’t afford math teachers and maybe there was someone at home who could help them? This would hardly be acceptable.
But that is essentially what happens to many students who need college counseling, especially those who are low income and would be the first in their families to attend college.
So Dressner made a film about a peer counseling program in New York City in which students are trained to help each other with the complex, daunting college application and financial aid process.
A special showing of the film, called Personal Statement, is planned for Monday, the observance of Martin Luther King’s Birthday. It will be followed by a forum on the need for more counselors in Philadelphia schools. Panelists will include City Council member Helen Gym, two of the young people profiled in the film, Philadelphia school counselor Tatiana Olmedo, and a youth organizer from Philadelphia Student Union.
The event will kick off a public awareness campaign to convince policymakers that the Philadelphia District needs more school counselors and that resources must be provided to hire them.
In 2013, when the District bore the brunt of draconian cuts in state education funding, it laid off all its counselors, whose positions are not mandated under state law. The District gradually hired most of them back, but only after the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers sued to fulfill its contract requirement of one counselor per school. Many of the rehired counselors served more than one school.
In the United States, the average counselor-to-student ratio in 2015 was 1 to 470, according to the American School Counselor Association. Its recommendation is 1 to 250. In Philadelphia, the average ratio now is 1 to 392, but that masks vast differences from school to school, according to Heather Marcus, a counselor at Masterman.
“If a school has 300 students, it has one counselor, and if it has 900 students, it has one counselor,” Marcus said.
Philadelphia’s budgeting system allocates one counselor per 949 students, she said, but principals can use school discretionary funds to hire more. Masterman, which has 1,200 students in grades 5 through 12, has three counselors, she said, because the principal fit the third one into the budget.
She points out that counselors do far more than college applications. “We help with academic support, social-emotional issues, as well as post-secondary planning,” she said. Because Masterman has both middle and high school students, she deals with high school selection and early-decision college applications at the same time.
Dressner, the filmmaker, said that the lack of sufficient counselors for low-income students “is a national issue.”
The organization College Access: Research & Action seeks to combat this through its peer counseling program.
“One of the film’s three main characters, his mother lives in a homeless shelter; he was living in his sister’s one-bedroom apartment,” Dressner said. He and his two nieces slept in the living room.
To finish his financial aid application, she said, he needed to get his mother’s most recent tax return, but he couldn’t reach his mother, so he had to skip school to stand in line at the Internal Revenue Service office.
“The system is not taking into account the complicated lives of so many low-income students,” Dressner said.
The film screening, which is free, will be at 3 p.m. at the Zellerbach Theater, 3680 Walnut St., at the University of Pennsylvania. Marcus said that as of Tuesday, more than 860 people had signed up. You can register to attend here.