Dozens of Philadelphia school counselors spent their first day of unemployment defending their role as essential mentors to students - and saying they hoped to be reinstated and return to work in the fall.

With the Philadelphia School District still seeking funds to bridge a $304 million shortfall, it has laid off 3,859 employees, including nearly every school counselor - 283 in all. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said he hopes to be able to restore most of the positions if the district's funding crisis is solved.

The laid-off counselors made their case as about 2,000 of their peers from across the country gathered Monday at the Convention Center for the American School Counselor Association's annual conference.

They had invited members of City Council and the School Reform Commission and state legislators to attend, but only a staffer representing state Rep. Mark B. Cohen (D-Phila.) showed up, an organizer said. So they found themselves speaking to a friendly crowd.

People often think of school counselors as merely helping students to find the right college, said Susan Edgar-Smith, cochair of the Counseling Psychology Department at Eastern University. In reality, she said, counselors play a key role in helping students deal with social and emotional issues outside the classroom that can hinder learning.

Former Mayfair Elementary School counselor Wendy Fortunato described how she staged an eight-week intervention that ended a bout of fighting and bullying among fifth-grade girls.

Estephany Abedejos, 17, a rising senior at South Philadelphia High School who had been invited to speak at the session, said she doesn't look forward to returning to school in the fall if her counselor isn't there to wish her good morning.

"Who will be there to pick us up when we fall from the pressure at school and at home?" Abedejos asked. "We'll be on our own."