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.
Parents and administrators at Murray and Ray, in particular, took for granted that Canter would start over with a new curriculum and a new faculty. Both schools boast high test scores and accelerated programs-for example, they begin foreign language classes in kindergarten. In contrast, the test scores at Canter, which enrolls more low-income students, were below grade level.
Although the university runs the prestigious University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, it has a stake in the reputation of nearby public schools. “We cannot attract students and faculty to the University of Chicago if the neighborhood is not perceived in the best possible terms,” says Duel Richardson, the university’s neighborhood relations director.
The public schools were not meeting the demand for high-quality education. Nearly a third of Hyde Park children were enrolled in private elementary schools, according to the most recent census. Many others vied for slots in the two top public elementary schools while other schools had to recruit from outside the neighborhood. When it came time for high school, many students left the neighborhood.
Just as Chicago provided school choice to students at only a portion of the eligible schools last fall, CPS now proposes to provide parental-choice tutoring this year to children at only 13 of the 25 eligible schools, leaving 12 high schools out of the loop. Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins cites unspecified “questions” about serving the high schools this year.
In terms of numbers, guidance counselors are waging a losing battle—at the high school level, the School Board pays for only one counselor for every 360 students, a sure formula for anonymity. Five years ago, the board attempted to rectify the situation by requiring every high school to create an advisory period. There, teachers would meet regularly with 15 or so students to discuss problems and plans for the future. The thinking was, if kids felt teachers and other adults in the school knew them better and cared what happened to them, they would perform better in class.
The scene of scattered notebooks and crowded tables is typical for a Wednesday night meeting of TEAM, which stands for Tutoring to Educate for Aims and Motivation, an alternative tutoring and career counseling program run by the Erie Neighborhood House. TEAM is one of dozens of local programs run by non-profit groups that encourage low-income, mostly minority students to finish high school and go to college.
Counselors are responsible for individual and family counseling, and running student leadership and peer mediation programs, says Horan. “This year, one counselor’s entire job is to keep track of last year’s inaugural graduates and make sure they are succeeding in college, the military and the workplace.”
The Chicago Panel on School Policy Initiative Status Reports—some previous issues have covered principal training, national certification for teachers and year-round schools—provided interim feedback to show whether programs were working, Buell explains. In six years, the Panel published 20 such reports. Since 2000, it has distributed 500,000 pamphlets that condensed the report research into more usable formats for parents, Buell says.
Canty Elementary in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood received training in school-based problem solving in 2000. By 2001, staff who had been trained had left the school and special education referral rates were up to 4.5 percent, says case manager Lorraine Ballesh and last year, Canty’s referrals fell to 1 percent.
CPS counselors are assigned to high schools at the ratio of one for every 360 students; the American School Counselor Association recommends one for every 250 students. Experiments to reduce the ratio in some high schools, such as North Lawndale Charter High, have produced results, but a counselor shortage makes hiring difficult, and in these tough economic times, the School Board couldn’t afford to pay them. Upcoming retirements are likely to make the situation worse.
A survey of students at predominently Latino enrollment schools last winter and spring found that 40 percent had not yet met with a counselor that year. Latinos had the least contact compared to Asian and white students. Overall, 31 percent of Latino students surveyed said they had never met with their counselor, compared to 16 percent of Asian students and 17 percent of white students.
As of January, 663 counselors were employed in Chicago public schools. Most are highly educated veterans. A master’s degree is required, but many have completed extra coursework.