Students and parents across Philadelphia are scrambling to meet Jan. 1 college application deadlines amid a budget crisis and deep cuts to the ranks of school counselors.
Some Philadelphia high schools reached a counselor-to-student ratio of 1 to 3,000 this fall, according to Philly School Counselors United. That's much higher than the 1-to-250 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association.
The School District of Philadelphia, following budget cuts made by Gov. Tom Corbett that aggravated a long-term fiscal crisis, opened this school year with 3,000 fewer staff members than last year. In September, there were only 126 counselors, down 236 from the 362 on staff the year before. Recently, the District rehired some laid-off counselors after Corbett, facing mounting political pressure, released $45 million in one-time federal funds that he had withheld over demands for concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
Philly School Counselors United pointed to a number of cases that illustrate the crisis: Northeast High School, with 3,000 students, has just two full-time and two-part counselors this year, down from 11 five years ago; Masterman, one of the state's top high schools, began the school year with only one counselor, and recently added a second; Academy at Palumbo, a school of 800 students, has only one.
"I've got" about "1,000 students that are on my caseload. I'm not just doing college applications," says Andrew Dunakin, a counselor at Northeast High. But applications take up a lot of time. "There's not enough time to get everything done. I take a lot of work home."
Dunakin says he has about 625 seniors this year, and that last year 67 percent attended college. So far this year, he has written 40 letters of recommendation.
"We don't have as much time to get to know a student," he laments.
Some kids do not begin the application process on time, and he no longer has the time to search out those students who don't come to him first.
When he started, there were three counselors at Northeast dedicated to the freshman class alone. He says things are now particularly tough for immigrant students, who confront various languages and legal barriers. He says the school lost a counselor who spoke four languages.
"We need to have a lot more than we have now to do the job well," he says. "Counselors aren't just supposed to sit in their office and wait for students to come to them, and wait for phone calls" and do "papework."
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