With little guidance, students drift through and out of school

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Youth First! Coalition

photo by Jason Reblando

Youth First! Coalition

At Gage Park High School, counselor Kenneth Banks complains of spending more time doing paperwork than talking to students about colleges and careers. This year, he is responsible for tending to the academic and career counseling needs of close to 300 seniors. Three other counselors and a trainee cover juniors, sophomores and freshmen.

Ideally, Gage Park counselors would be proactive and help students address problems—like class cutting or academic failure—that jeopardize their chances of graduating, Banks explains. But the department is short two counselors, and one of the vacancies is filled by a teacher working toward state certification.

“Less than one percent of our time is spent doing the counseling we were trained to do,” Banks complains. “If you look at my desk, you see that I have 100 different things I have to deal with.”

Similar stories crop up throughout Chicago Public Schools. Commonly, high school students visit with school counselors once a year, when it’s time to schedule courses for the following year. However, some students talk with counselors even less frequently, or not at all.

“I have never seen my counselor,” says Jocelyn Krause, a junior at Lincoln Park High School. “I don’t even know what she looks like.”

For many CPS students, guidance counselors are the invisible man, or more likely, the invisible woman. In theory, school counselors would know their students well enough to help them weather academic and personal crises, and guide them to make wise decisions about the future. But in reality, they are often overworked, in short supply and steered away from direct contact with students. A survey of CPS graduates in 2000 found 40 percent of seniors saying no one at school talked to them about college or helped them fill out applications.

Under such conditions, connecting with students should be an expectation for all school staff, not just counselors, say high school reform experts.

“What is fundamentally important is that every youngster belong to somebody,” says Gene Bottoms of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta and director of its well-regarded High Schools that Work program. “Counselors have to prepare teachers to play that role.”

African-American and Latino students, who are more likely to drop out and less likely to attend college, rely more heavily on getting information and guidance from school staff to plan for college and choose demanding courses. Counselors are safety nets who fill in those gaps and prevent them from falling through the cracks. Yet a recent survey of students at four predominantly Latino CPS high schools found nearly half of the respondents at one school had never met their counselor; the average at all four was 27 percent. (See story.)

Also, a national study found that black students are less likely than whites to develop bonds at school with an adult—someone who could motivate them and help them get into college.

In recent years, Chicago public school students who make it to high school have a better shot at graduating, but the district still lags behind the state in graduation rates. Last spring, 82 percent of high school seniors in Illinois graduated, but only 68 percent of those in CPS did.

Likewise, only 5 percent of Illinois seniors dropped out last year, but 14 percent did in CPS. “Counselors play a critical role in identifying potential dropouts and directing those students to services that will prevent them from dropping out,” notes a recent report by ASPIRA Inc. of Illinois, a Puerto Rican nonprofit.

Boosting the quality of guidance counseling available to students can be done in one of two ways. Investing in hiring more counselors is a strategy to which North Lawndale Charter can attest. Other high schools, particularly small ones like Best Practice High, create a climate and class structure that invites all adults to pitch in on student guidance.

Making such changes district-wide, however, has proven difficult. In tough budget times, paying for counselors is not a priority. Also, the board’s advisory program, started in 1997 to cultivate stronger relationships between teachers and small groups of students, has not made much headway so far.

Spread thin

Sheer numbers are the main reason guidance counselors have such a tough time spreading themselves around. CPS assigns one counselor for every 360 high school students, and one counselor for each elementary school with at least 350 students. (Elementary schools over 1,200 get one and a half.)

The ideal ratio, according to the Washington D.C.-based American School Counselor Association, is one to 250. Overall, the vacancy rate appears low—about 7 percent as of January, or 62.5 positions—but that’s because another 97 positions are filled with teachers like the one at Gage Park who are working toward getting counseling certificates.

Illinois ranks fourth worst in the nation with its counselor-student ratio of one to 700.

Retirements in the next five years are expected to spread school counselors even thinner. About 20 percent of the state’s 2,800 school counselors are expected to retire during that period, says Toni Tollerud, executive director of the Illinois Counselors Academy. “There’s definitely a shortage all around,” she says.

Plus, counselor training programs are time-consuming and unable to keep up with demand. “It’s not the kind of program where you can mass produce a huge number of counselors in a given time,” she adds.

Besides being short-staffed, school counselors are also pulled in too many directions and have little time to focus on individual students. National experts recommend school counselors spend 70 percent of their time working with students alone or in small groups, and the rest of their time doing administrative work. But in CPS, guidance counselors are more likely to spend the bulk of their time mapping out individual students’ course schedules, administering standardized tests and performing clerical tasks.

Some guidance counselors, however, manage to build solid relationships with students. Lake View High School counselor Steve Maras keeps close tabs on Terence Thomas, whom he recruited from Young Elementary in Austin. Through the ups and downs of high school, Maras has been a steady presence for Terence, helping him keep a B-minus grade point average while he played on the school’s basketball team. When his grades slipped, Maras helped him shape up, says Thomas. “Mr. Maras told me to stop playing [around] so much.”

Maras also helped Thomas complete applications to four colleges. In mid-February, Thomas learned he stands a good chance of being admitted to the University of Illinois at Champaign through a special program for underrepresented students.

Deploying staff

The way a high school deploys its counseling staff can have a significant impact on the kinds of relationships counselors can forge with students. Lake View counselors each work with one grade level—Maras works only with seniors, for instance.

The students they work with change from year to year.

Another common strategy—one used at Gage Park—is to assign counselors to work with a class of students throughout their four years in high school. Once they graduate, the counselor begins a new cycle with incoming freshmen the following year.

Each method has advantages and disadvantages, notes Jean Perez, CPS director of citywide guidance. Counselors who work only with sophomores, for example, “get really good at it,” she says. “The drawback is you don’t get to know the students like you do if you have them for four years.”

By contrast, Perez notes that counselors get to know students well when they work with them for four years, but they don’t develop a network of relevant resources, particularly important when working with seniors.

But at some schools, counselor-student assignments are a hodgepodge, where counselors work with a cross-section of teens from all four grades. ASPIRA, which surveyed four schools using this model, recommends scrapping it because freshmen and sophomores get shortchanged.

Poor job descriptions

Counselors’ duties are also haphazardly assigned. “No one really knows the counselors’ scope of services,” says the ASPIRA report.

Their best-known responsibility is helping students set up or change course schedules. Such meetings could be opportunities to discuss a student’s goals, and explain to them how tough courses like advanced mathematics may help them.

But there’s not enough time, says Banks, who saw all 350 of his then-juniors last spring when they stopped by to schedule next year’s courses. A strict timetable limits meetings to about five minutes per student, he notes. “It’s not really quality counseling time.”

School counselors are trained to interpret standardized test results for students and teachers. But often they’re tapped to administer the tests themselves, a time-consuming responsibility that covers the gamut from distributing test materials to supervising security to training teachers to monitor tests.

Dean Strassburger, a counselor at Lincoln Park High, coordinates over 1,000 Advanced Placement exams over a two-week period every May. “You have to get [tests] to the teachers, you have to get things organized and divided up, you have to make sure it’s all secure,” he explains. “It’s a bureaucratic nightmare.”

The department chair has it worse, supervising three exams at three different times of the year, he adds. The American School Counselors Association says both scheduling and test administration are inappropriate duties for counselors. Other tasks they consider inappropriate are signing tardy excuses, substituting for absent teachers and clerical recordkeeping.

Such mundane tasks are unlikely to go away. “There are not enough hands to go around,” says Banks, who hid from his students for a week in January so he could prepare materials and order lunches for a conference on 8th grade to high school transition. “The kids were going crazy,” he recalls.

Principals bear some of the blame for misusing guidance counselors for clerical work, says Tollerud. “If administrators understood how much they’re paying somebody to be a secretary, they wouldn’t do that.”

More than 40 percent of counselors are earning between $51,400 and $76,400—salaries in the second-highest pay range on the teacher salary scale.

Some counselors are at fault, too, says Russell Sabella, president-elect of the American School Counselor Association. “Some counselors find it’s a lot less stressful than dealing with students.”

Triage counseling

Administrative distractions leave counselors only enough time to address students with the most critical academic or behavioral needs, or demanding high-achievers.

Jacqueline Guerrero, a junior at Jones College Preparatory High, was not satisfied with the counselor she was assigned to and shopped the department until she found a better fit.

Counselor Dan Connor of Senn High confers most often with students who are truant or failing—or close to it. “I tend to get to know the students who are having adjustment issues as freshmen.”

Middle-of-the-road kids get lost, Connor says. “It’s those students who are doing fine in their classes, coming every day, that I don’t get to see. They need me less.” But those children want and could benefit from some attention, he adds.

Students do want that attention. At the January School Board meeting, sophomore Carlos Delcid begged for extra money to hire more counselors at Steinmetz High, where eight counselors serve more than 2,800 students. Although many students speak Spanish or Polish, none of the counselors speak either language, he told the board. “There aren’t that many counselors out there—they can’t handle that [load],” says Delcid. “I haven’t seen my counselor since freshman year.”

Getting more counselors and qualified teachers topped the list of demands at a recent protest organized by Youth First! Campaign, a citywide network of grass-roots youth organizations.

Advisory solution

So far, the School Board’s major initiative to improve high school guidance is a mandated weekly advisory period. The idea was for division teachers to cultivate closer relationships with students and to offer group guidance on social, academic and career issues.

Attending advisory is a graduation requirement, but only some schools let students earn credit for the class. “That’s a local decision,” notes advisory case manager Deborah Caise-Fitzpatrick. CPS does not track the number of schools where advisory carries a credit.

With little oversight from central office, there is “a tremendous amount of diversity” in high school advisory, says Jennifer Loudon, assistant director of strategic planning. Freshmen at Kenwood High, for example, earn credit for advisory and use it as a study-skills course. At Senn, advisory period is ground zero for the school’s service learning program. “Schools are using it to meet their needs,” Loudon observes.

The class of 2000 would disagree. In a CPS survey, nearly 60 percent of them said advisory was “only a little” or “not at all” useful.

Some outside observers view advisory skeptically. “I’ve witnessed advisory over the years. It’s a time for taking roll and crowd control,” says Jo Thompson of the Scholarship and Guidance Association in Chicago, a nonprofit hired to provide therapeutic counseling in some public schools.

In a 2001 study of CPS high schools, Northwestern University’s Center for Urban School Policy found that “the meaning of advisory has been progressively diluted and the range of activities conducted under this label has significantly expanded.”

Rather than building stronger relationships with students and paving the way to address social development issues, the study reported, advisory teachers feared moving beyond their traditional roles, and central office neither trained nor encouraged them to do so.

“Teachers really did not feel they were competent to do the social curriculum,” says author G. Alfred Hess Jr. Advisory will improve only when “the district decides to deal with the teachers’ sense of inadequacy and unwillingness to deal with student issues. It’s an unwillingness that’s rooted in a lack of training.”

CPS officials are looking for ways to improve advisory classes. A planning group chaired by Area Instructional Officer Norma Rodriguez is just beginning to examine the course.

“Maybe advisory isn’t working exactly the way we want it to work,” says Melissa Roderick, CPS director of strategic planning. “Going to college is not just about getting applications in. It’s involving teachers in academics as part of a significant career planning effort.”