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PHILADELPHIA — Nayeli Perez knew she wanted to go to college — but she didn’t know where to start. She didn’t know what sort of colleges might be likely to offer her admission. She didn’t know how to find financial aid or how much assistance she’d be eligible for. Nor did she understand how to identify schools that would allow her to major in zoology and prepare for her dream job as a veterinarian, but where she could also explore her interests in political science and film.
Her mother, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, had never been to college and didn’t know how to help. And while Perez had a hunch she’d be happiest at a small rural school, one that would take her far away from city life, she felt clueless about where to look, given that she’d only left Philadelphia a handful of times, to visit family in the DR.
“I was really having a hard time with it, I was so behind in the process, and didn’t understand what my options were,” said Perez, now an 18-year-old senior at the Academy at Palumbo, a public magnet high school in central Philadelphia.
Getting one-on-one time with the counselors at her school didn’t feel like an option. Palumbo has just two counselors for its 1,060 students. Desperate for guidance, Perez enrolled in an elective college-prep class designed to help kids with their college and financial aid applications. But with a whole room of students seeking guidance, Perez said she struggled to get her questions answered and continued to flounder.
In Philadelphia and nationwide, many public high schools are scrambling to provide students with even basic information about college after years of belt tightening have drained them of counselors. Wealthy families have increasingly turned to private college consultants to help their children line up high school classes and extracurriculars, write admissions essays, prepare for the SAT and ACT and choose colleges that provide a good fit. But for most students, support is scant: counselors are overwhelmed, college guidance often doesn’t begin until late in junior year, and financial aid advice tends to be so minimal that many students fail to fill out routine paperwork like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Without the proper guidance to help them make a good college match, only 6 out of 10 students complete college within six years of enrolling, an urgent problem exacerbated by student debt that has ballooned to $1.5 trillion in 2019.
And in Philadelphia, the poorest big city in America where almost 40 percent of children live below the federal poverty line, educators and students say college planning often takes a back seat to helping young people persevere through high school and cope with anxiety, trauma and other mental health needs.
“There’s just not a level of support staffing to help kids, not just with their personal needs, but with the basic processing of paperwork for potential opportunities, jobs, college, career and technical schools,” said Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania which, along with the national ACLU, is asking school boards, principals and government leaders to boost school mental health resources, rather than adding more law enforcement in schools.
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To critics like Jordan, Philadelphia’s approach epitomizes the low priority school systems place on counseling. Six years ago, amid a severe budget crisis, the Philadelphia School District laid off all its counselors, along with thousands of teachers and other support staff. Most were eventually rehired; as of this school year, the district employs 322 counselors to serve its 126,994 students. That’s a ratio of 394 students per counselor, on par with the national average but significantly higher than the 250:1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association. Many counselors working in Philadelphia public schools have much larger caseloads, however, and caseload distribution is uneven: The district funds just one school counselor per 949 students and caps the number of counselors per school at five. But schools with many college-bound kids and more affluent parents sometimes use discretionary money to hire additional counselors. In contrast, schools with the greatest needs — those in high-poverty areas with high levels of student trauma and other mental health needs — are often the ones that receive the least help, said Jordan.*
At the same time that the district is failing to provide enough funding for school counseling to keep up with the needs of students at many schools, it is paying for additional school security, such as a recently approved a measure to require metal detectors and X-ray machines in every high school. District-wide, 340 police officers work in Philadelphia schools, eclipsing the number of counselors. For many students, this emphasis on law enforcement rankles, and they are starting to push back. The Philadelphia Student Union, a student-led group, is demanding that the district remove police from schools and increase investment in support services like counselors.
“In most of our schools, when there’s a problem, we don’t get sent to the counselor,” said Charles Mitchell, 16, a sophomore at The Workshop School, a high-poverty magnet school in West Philadelphia, and a member of the Philadelphia Student Union. “Instead, a police officer comes to get you.”
Megan Lello, a school district spokesperson, said her agency recognizes the importance of school counseling: Since 2015, the district has added 85 counselors and just one police officer, she said. The district is also providing training in cultural sensitivity to police officers in schools; she added it is up to principals to decide whether to use their discretionary funds to hire counselors beyond those provided via the district’s funding formula. “We believe that all students should have access to counselors and related supports,” Lello wrote in an email.
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At Northeast High School, a large comprehensive public school with 3,400 students where just half of students meet proficiency levels in math and English Language Arts, counselor Andrew Dunakin has a caseload of 800 students. He’s forced to be as creative as possible with his time: He asks teachers to alert him to students who need support, he is constantly running data reports to flag kids with falling grades and accumulating school absences. And in the first few months of the school year, he tries to slip into the speaking lineup at three or four weekly all-grade assemblies so he can quickly reach as many kids as possible with information on how to decipher financial aid packages and prod students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
In spite of these efforts, Dunakin’s caseload is so large that the basics of effective school counseling — getting to know individual students, helping them develop academic goals, providing individual and small group counseling to address social-emotional needs, for example — fall by the wayside, he said. “There’s so much less hand-holding at our school,” said Dunakin, who is the lead counselor on a team of five counselors at Northeast. “The way it’s structured right now, with the number of counselors we have now at the school, there’s just no way you can meet all the needs.”
Complicating his work is the fact that the majority of Northeast parents have not attended college — Dunakin estimates approximately 40 percent of the school’s students have parents who are college graduates. Many are immigrants; he said some 40 languages are spoken at the school. Because so many parents did not go to college, they aren’t able to advise their children about viable college and career options, leaving counselors to fill that gap.
Dunakin said this lack of support contributes to the high dropout rate among those who do make it to college. Last school year, just 49 percent of male Northeast graduates and 62 percent of female graduates remained at the four-year colleges they enrolled in after graduation. Among Northeast graduates attending two-year programs, the persistence rates dropped to about 25 percent. Without adequate guidance, students often end up at schools that are a poor match in terms of academics and culture; they also overlook scholarships, miss financial aid deadlines and inadvertently take on outsize debt by crossing off their lists colleges that have high price tags but are more likely to offer financial assistance.
Northeast counselors use RepVisit, a website that connects college admissions representatives with high schools, to set up weekend college fairs where students can sign up for visits with the admissions reps. This is a big time-saver for Dunakin and his colleagues who, each year, do their best to coordinate five or six bus trips to local schools like Penn State and the Community College of Philadelphia.
“If we could have more resources to be able to impart more of the important information to students,” Dunakin said, “we’d have more people staying in college and getting the education they need.”
And college and career planning is just one part of his job. In recent years, Dunakin said, he’s seen more and more students struggling to cope with bullying, manage their social media use in healthy ways and contend with anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. “We know a lot more nowadays about mental health, about the long-term impact of bullying, for example,” he said. “We try really hard to make sure we’re doing as much as we can to help kids deal with these types of things.”
A half-hour drive from Dunakin’s school, in the Spring Garden section of Philadelphia, the Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School enrolls roughly 1,200 students in grades 5 through 12. Known to locals as Masterman, it is a top-tier magnet school that draws high-achieving students from across the city. Three counselors divvy up the students into caseloads of 400 each. Under the district’s funding formula, Masterman is only allocated two counselors, but five years ago, noting how tough it was for two counselors to address the many disparate needs of both middle and high school students, the school principal decided to use discretionary funds to hire a third. It’s a decision the principal at Dunakin’s school just came to as well: Next year, Dunakin said, his school intends to hire a sixth counselor.
At Masterman, counselor Heather Marcus’ caseload, while large, at least allows her time to give each student personal attention in researching and applying to colleges. She meets individually with the students assigned to her during their junior year to help them plan for taking the SAT, discuss course choices, map out colleges they’d like to attend and explore summer programs. Then, each fall, she spends about half an hour interviewing each senior and reviewing resumes so she can write a detailed letter of recommendation for each college application.
The school holds a college information night for juniors and runs a program in which seniors help guide juniors through the application process. There’s a financial aid night for students, and there are seminars where teachers counsel students on college essay writing and make sure that each student has a Common Application account — which allows students to apply to more than 800 colleges with a single online application — before leaving for the summer. This year, because parents requested it, Masterman counselors organized a mental health night at which three therapists discussed topics like managing stress and provided tips to help parents monitor kids’ social media use.
While her caseload isn’t quite as hefty as that of some of her peers at other city schools, Marcus said she often feels defeated.* “There are so many kids’ needs that aren’t being met,” she said. “Sometimes, I’m just putting out fires.”
For Perez, the 18-year-old senior at the Academy of Palumbo, the college process only began to make sense after her English teacher, working with her on an unrelated project, asked how her applications were going. “I just said: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’” she recalled. “At that point, I was fixated on UC Davis [School of Veterinary Medicine]. Beyond that, I didn’t know where else to look.” After several conversations, Perez said her teacher helped her expand her list to schools that were a better match with her academic interests, financial needs and, importantly, that would provide an environment in which she could feel comfortable and happy. “He also made the brilliant point that UC Davis is a state school where I’d be paying out-of-state tuition, and it would be very expensive to move there,” said Perez.
In March, she received acceptance letters from two small liberal arts colleges less than an hour’s drive from her hometown: Goucher College in Maryland, and Drew University in New Jersey. Looking back, Perez said the day her English teacher stepped in — when her overworked counselor was unable to — was a game-changer. Later this spring, she plans to visit Goucher and Drew to see which she prefers. “They’re both small, beautiful campuses surrounded by nature,” said Perez, sounding joyful. “Maybe I’ll spend the night when I visit, which will hopefully help me make my decision.”
*Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that while the Masterman high school counselor’s caseload is smaller than that of some of her peers, her workload is not necessarily smaller. It also clarifies Harold Jordan’s description of high-needs schools.
This story about college guidance was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.