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High school counselors' daunting workload

At most of the city's high schools, they are each expected to work with more than 300 students. Change is planned.

With most Philadelphia high school counselors having little time for a critical aspect of their jobs - helping students get into college - schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has vowed to refocus their mission.

Counselors at more than 70 percent of the city's 61 high schools are each expected to counsel more than 300 students - the maximum goal in the district teachers' contract and the maximum recommended by national counseling groups.

Counselors at 20 percent of the high schools carry more than 500 students, according to district records.

Moreover, the work of college counseling has wrongly been neglected because of students' social and emotional issues and the crisis of the day, which should be handled by other district workers, Ackerman said.

On Thursday, she announced that funding for students to take the PSAT and SAT tests has been restored. She also vowed to again start covering the costs of outside SAT prep courses. Funding for the programs were cut in recent years as the district struggled financially.

Ackerman said upon her arrival in June she found the district woefully underprepared to help meet Mayor Nutter's goal of doubling the city's college degree attainment rate. Currently, 18 percent of city residents have college degrees.

"I immediately saw there was a problem," Ackerman said. "There are big gaps throughout the system, starting with what counselors do and where they spend their time. It was evident to me . . . that we were never going to meet the mayor's goals or our goals if we didn't make some serious changes."

She said she was "shocked" to find guidance counselors under the special education department, and that at most schools, they largely work on students' social and emotional problems and special education needs.

She has since moved them under the chief academic officer and has begun advertising for an executive director of counseling services, who will be charged with overseeing a redirection of counseling in the 167,000-student district. The redirection should be done by June, she said.

"Raising this issue as a result of your story . . . just reaffirms for me how important the work is that we've already started in this district as it relates to counseling," she said. "It lets me know we're on the right track."

She wants counselors to meet with students one-on-one early in their high school careers to discuss their futures and make sure they take the courses they need. Counselors must work closely with first generation college students and keep students on track for the PSAT and SAT.

Ackerman said she was stunned when high school seniors - who told her they wanted to go to college and knew where they wanted to go - hadn't taken their SATs.

"I would say how did you do on your SAT, and they . . . looked at me with this blank look.

"And I thought my God, they're not going anywhere."

Ackerman said other staff would also be charged with dealing with students' social and emotional problems and crises. She has already sent new employees to some of the district's most underperforming schools to help alleviate the counselors' heavy loads.

Ackerman said she would try, but would be hard-pressed, to lower the ratio of students to counselors - averaging 390 to 1 - given the district's fiscal constraints. She noted that ratio was comparable and in some cases better than that of other urban districts.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the PFT again would press for a 250 to 1 ratio during negotiations next year.

Ackerman said she was concerned about the variation in counselor caseloads across high schools. There seems to be no reason to it, she found.

Overbrook, a large neighborhood high school, has one of the highest ratios, 550 students for each counselor. Meanwhile, University City, another neighborhood high school, has 259 per counselor.

Variations are just as astounding at the district's top magnet schools. Central has one counselor for every 316 students, compared with Masterman - the highest scoring school in the state on reading and math tests - with more than 600 per counselor in grades 7-12.

A Shortage of Counselors

Philadelphia high schools with 500 or more students per guidance counselor.

Students Per

School   Enrollment   Counselors   counselor

Northeast   3,082   4   771

Franklin   624   1   624

Masterman*   1,212   2   606

Engineering&Science   593   1   593

Lincoln   1,767   3   589

Bodine   560   1   560

Saul   560   1   560

Overbrook   1,652   3   551

Mastbaum   1,069   2   535

Kensington Culinary   529   1   529

Edison   2,092   4   523

Kensington Capa   517   1   517

Fels   1,520   3   507

* Grades 7-12

SOURCE: Philadelphia School District