In a single day, school counselor Alice Philips may field concerns from parents when they drop their children off in the morning, help an eighth grader weigh his options for transitioning to high school, or assist an English Language Learner with a schedule change—and meanwhile discover that a student has also been a target of bullying.
Philips works at Oakland’s Edna Brewer Middle School, where she is responsible for keeping tabs on the academic needs of more than 800 students, grades 6-8. But while counselors focus first and foremost on academic guidance and working to keep students on the track for graduation, many find themselves fielding students dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts, abuse at home, or violence in their neighborhood, among other traumas—things that encompass much more than academics.
“The vast realm of issues that we deal with as school counselors is more than probably anyone realizes,” said Philips, who has served as a counselor at Edna Brewer for four years and worked within Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) for eight.
Monday marked the beginning of National School Counselor Week, which is celebrated during the first full week of February. Sponsored by the American School Counselor Association, the week recognizes the contributions that counselors make to schools around the country. OUSD deputy superintendent Maria Santos drafted a resolution to extend the recognition within the district, which board members passed unanimously at the last meeting.
“It’s just a good week for people to become aware of what we do and how vital our roles are in the school,” Philips said. She was at the most recent board meeting to present a thank you speech, and will be distributing stickers to students, parents and staff that read “Support Oakland families and Students through Certified Counselors.” She will also ask other schools to place an announcement of the week on their marquees, and send cards of appreciation to members of the Oakland Educational Association (OEA) counselor caucus, a group within the teachers’ union which also represents school counselors.
These days, on-site counselors like Philips can be hard to find at schools in Oakland. Philips is one of 21 counselors in the district, and they serve a select few middle schools and high schools. Six of the 21 work out of the district’s College and Career Readiness office instead of at individual school sites. No district elementary schools have counselors.
“There were probably 45 or 50 counselors when I started in the district in 1999,” said Vivian Romero, who works at the College and Career Readiness office and previously worked as a school counselor at Montera Middle School.
A mandate within OEA’s contract requires one counselor for every 700 students in grades 7-12, district-wide, but counselors say they are still overloaded. The American School Counselor Association recommends a 1-to-250 counselor-to-student ratio.
“Some kids get overlooked and follow-up is really hard because there are so many fires to put out,” Philips said. She and Romero both want the district to consider lowering the ratio to at least one counselor for every 500 students and ensure that at least every middle school and high school in the district have a credentialed counselor on site.
Jill Cook of the American School Counselor Association said there has also been a decrease in public school counselors nationwide. According to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics, there were about 105,000 counselors in the 2010-2011, down about 2,500 positions from the previous year. “We know positions have been eliminated due to the budget and the economy,” Cook said.
Romero, who is on the OEA executive board, is helping to spread the word about National School Counselor Week in Oakland but acknowledged that it is “a little bit odd because there aren’t that many counselors in the district and we’re going to be giving [stickers] out to people who don’t have counselors at their school sites.”
One factor that has led to fewer on-site counselor positions has been a “centralization of staffing” that started two years ago, OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint said.
Flint mentioned that an audit completed a year ago revealed that hundreds of students were not on track to graduate. “We had a lot of counselors who were doing good work individually, but the overall results weren’t what we wanted,” he said. He added that complaints of students being placed in courses below their academic potential—based on race—was part of a recent investigation into the district’s disciplinary treatment of African American students by the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office. Last fall the district agreed to be monitored by the federal government as it moved to address various civil rights grievances.
“That’s another tendency that we can monitor better district-wide from a centralized position,” Flint said. “It wasn’t a popular decision by any means, but that’s one that we stood by.”
Romero also attributed the disappearance of school counselors from school sites to principals opting not to fund counselor positions. “A principal can say, ‘Well, I don’t want to spend any money on a school counselor,’” Romero said.
Instead, principals themselves take on counseling responsibilities, which Romero said only counselors with Pupil Personnel Services (PPS) credentials are sufficiently trained for. PPS credentials are issued by the California Commission of Teacher Credentialing, and require candidates to earn a post-baccalaureate degree specializing in school counseling and complete supervised field experience with school-age children. “Our credential allows us to do academic, personal social and career counseling,” she said. “There isn’t any other credential or job experience that says you can do all three of these.”
Sailaja Suresh, vice principal at Oakland International High School, said it’s difficult getting by without a school counselor on site. For Oakland International’s first six years, the principal has been responsible for figuring out which credits students need to graduate and which credits students need to apply to take Advanced Placement or English as a Second Language classes elsewhere.
“It’s hours and hours of work to comb through 300 transcripts,” Suresh said. “In our school in particular, [counseling] is a big need because all of our students are recently arrived immigrants and the whole school system and grading system—they’re all new concepts to them. Teachers have also taken on the role of presenting that information to parents.”
But Suresh said the priority for the school is to use funding for its 17 teachers, to keep class sizes small.
“It mostly comes down to the budget,” she said. “In an ideal world there is a counselor at every school who owns credit issues and is helping students understand how they can graduate, but if you’re in a situation where you can’t have a counselor and the principal is taking on that role, ultimately it’s about making decisions for the kids and helping them get whatever they need.”
Back at Edna Brewer, Alice Philips accommodates students who want to spend their lunch hour in her office because she said they feel “comfortable” and “safe.” At the end of the day, she supervises Edna Brewer’s Tutor Team–a program she helped fund through Indiegogo; Eighth graders help fellow students in English and Math for an hour after school.
“The counseling that we provide, we really think is valuable, important and meaningful and that’s what we want to be recognized for,” Romero said of on-site counselors like Philips. “What’s most important is the difference that we’re making in the lives of families and students.”