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College applications shortchanged under schools' counselor cuts

At prestigious Central High, there's a two-week wait to see a counselor. At Northeast High, the city's largest school, a focus on helping students hoping to become the first in their families to go to college has mostly fallen by the wayside.

At prestigious Central High, there's a two-week wait to see a counselor.

At Northeast High, the city's largest school, a focus on helping students hoping to become the first in their families to go to college has mostly fallen by the wayside.

And at Academy at Palumbo, a magnet school in South Philadelphia, some college applications have been submitted late because the single counselor for 800 students just can't process everything on time.

In the thick of college application season, the Philadelphia School District's cuts to counseling services are becoming especially problematic, those on the front lines say.

"It's really hard to be there for 600 students," said Heather Marcus, one of two counselors for 1,200 students at Masterman. "It breaks my heart when I know that students need something, and there just aren't enough hours in the day to give it to them."

Amid a terrible budget crunch, most district schools began the year without a full-time counselor. After Gov. Corbett released $45 million to the district, 80 positions were restored in November.

Even so, there are not nearly enough counselors, many say.

Many students at Central High shoot for top-tier colleges, but counselor Tatiana Olmedo has had to warn college officials not every student will have a letter of recommendation.

The math just doesn't add up, Olmedo said - 2,400 students, two counselors. Eight counselors used to work at the school. Students who want an appointment to see a counselor can count on a two-week wait.

"We don't know all the students, and we don't have a way of meeting them in a timely fashion," Olmedo said. Schools including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brown University indicated that might affect students' chances.

Representatives from those schools "made it very clear that they don't know what's going to happen in terms of the admissions process. We don't know what the repercussions are going to be," Olmedo said.

When Northeast, with 3,000 students, had 11 counselors five years ago, the team had a tracking system and a proactive outreach plan - lessons helping ninth graders transition to high school, teaching students how to identify when a friend might be suicidal. Now, Andrew Dunakin, one of two full-time and two part-time counselors, says there's barely time to get out to visit classrooms. "It's just luck that we haven't had any huge problems this year," Dunakin said.

Dunakin, who's responsible for more than 1,000 students, spent his New Year's Eve writing college recommendations. Deadlines for the most selective colleges were Jan. 1, but a number of schools popular with Northeast students - Drexel University, Villanova University, the University of Delaware - are due Jan. 15, and Dunakin is buried.

"I try very hard not to do, 'Boy, this student must be awesome because they have been doing, and then list their activities,' " Dunakin said. "It's tough."

Northeast is lucky in a way, Dunakin said - the nonprofit Philadelphia Futures has started an intensive college-readiness program for a few dozen seniors, and that helps. The school's counselors are relying on Philadelphia Futures kids to be evangelists, talking to their classmates about college and helping with questions when counselors can't get to them.

Northeast's counselors used to focus ample attention on first-generation college students, but there's just not time this year, Dunakin said.

"Unfortunately, they're getting pushed to the wayside," he said.

Christine Donnelly can sympathize. Donnelly, the sole counselor at Academy at Palumbo - there used to be three - feels she's constantly in triage mode, perpetually behind.

Like many counselors across the district, she's working nights, weekends, and holidays to meet demand, but Donnelly has still missed deadlines. In one case, she submitted a student's early-action application a day late. When she called the admissions office to plead her case, officials were understanding. But she knows that won't always be the case.

Donnelly created a generic form to send to colleges - "Dear admissions officer, an impossible budget and an impossible caseload mean I can't write narrative recommendations for every student." Instead, students fill out a checklist telling her about themselves, and Donnelly uses that to craft a short note.

"I feel a tinge of guilt, but it's what I can do," she said.

Donnelly and others say they used to be able to spend time helping students come up with lists of colleges they had a reasonable shot at getting into, but for the most part, that kind of individualized attention is much more difficult to provide now.

And college counseling isn't her only task. She's also responsible for students' emotional needs.

"I'm overwhelmed. There are kids I have to say to, 'Is there any teacher in the school you feel close to?' It goes against everything that I believe in, but I just can't help everyone," she said.

Counselors at schools across the city agree: This pace isn't sustainable, and everyone knows who's suffering.

"The kids are being underserved," Donnelly said. "I'm not able to sit with every one of these kids and give them what they need. This wouldn't be tolerated anywhere else."

215-854-5146 @newskag