Take a walk through the halls of any public school in Philadelphia and behind each classroom door, you're bound to meet students brimming with the stress and strain of life in a big city.

 

At South Philadelphia High School, 11th grader Amber Holmes dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon and getting out of a neighborhood where, she says, people live by looking over their shoulders — worried that the next shot fired is coming for them.

"It's back-to-back crime everyday, every week," Holmes said, "and then you be thinking like, 'Am I next?' or whatever. Or 'Is my brother next?' or 'Is my cousin next to get shot?'"

Antonio Nanthavongsa was sent to a disciplinary school a few years back for a violent outburst he says stemmed from repressing a difficult childhood memory.

"I knew it was wrong what I did, but it's like, I couldn't control myself. I blacked out," he said. "I couldn't remember what happened 'til like they told me about it."

Having learned from that experience, he says he keeps his cool better now but is currently dealing with the recent loss of a close family member.

"Most people don't know," he said, "but I'm like emotionally scarred, and like mentally scarred."

Another student, after classes one day, lingered in the classroom of a favorite teacher. She asked for and received the teacher's cell phone number and disappeared back into Southern's cavernous halls.

The teacher says the girl is homeless, searching day to day for the safety of a bed.

These types of portraits aren't news to anyone who's spent time talking with many of the 134,000 students in the Philadelphia School District.  Almost every kid can give an insight to the harrowing challenges that, like a perpetually looming backdrop, hang on the stage of students' lives.

But this year, after severe budget cuts reduced the city's guidance counseling corps by more than half, many parents, students and school staff fear that students like these will be left to shoulder these enormous weights much more on their own.

As the cash-strapped district wades its way through its second week of classes, more than half of city schools don't have a full-time counselor, and those that do face counselor-to-student ratios far exceeding expert recommendations.

Ratios out of control

The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students. Counselors on the ground will tell you that 250 would be ideal, but that 500 is the line where services truly start to diminish.

South Philadelphia High School now has two guidance counselors for a projected enrollment of 1,500 students — a ratio that's actually much more favorable than those elsewhere in the district.

Central High School has two counselors for 2,300 students. At Northeast High School, it's one counselor for 3,000. There, the principal decided to hire an additional assistant principal instead of an additional counselor.

Most traditional city schools, though, don't have even one full-time counselor. The district has scheduled a group of 16 'itinerant counselors' to spend the school year roving around 115 schools (55 percent of the district). Each counselor will serve seven or eight schools. 

That's 16 counselors for 48,000 students. A ratio of 1 to 3,000.

"It's a nightmare," said one itinerant counselor who didn't want his/her name used for fear of reprisal from the district.

The counselor said the first week of school meant 80 miles of driving around the city, on top of the daily commute— only to set up in offices that often lacked phones, computers and basic office supplies. The counselor's stated mission was to assess the needs of students legally requiring special attention from the district. The counselor said it felt like being made a pawn in the district's attempt to avoid a slew of lawsuits.

"This isn't really being a school counselor," the itinerant said, "because school counselors do school counseling programs."

Instead, intinerant counselors will have to hustle from school to school without time to eat lunch — trying to get a handle on the 3,000 students looking for help with everything from high school and college applications to emotional crises.

"The positive thing so far is that I've lost a few pounds," the itinerant said sarcastically.

And even though all itinerants are dual-certified to work in both elementary schools and high schools, this counselor worries about itinerants being asked to work with students from grade levels with which they don't have recent professional involvement.

"Counselors have been put into positions where, yes, they have certifications," said the itinerant, "but they don't have experience with current processes."

Caroline Watts, senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, specializes in developing healthy educational environments for children and youth.

"The [itinerant] counselor's skills aren't being used in any way that builds resilience and stability in the community of the school," said Watts, who also oversees Penn's partnership with West Philadelphia's Lea Elementary. "It's just about one or two quick things, and that's a huge loss."

Without adequate counseling resources, Watts says schools function on a "crisis basis," and not on a "proactive basis."

"All the things that we know are effective to help support kids socially and emotionally and academically need to be put into place proactively before things that we think of as problems start to happen," she said.

Impact on students

Talking to parents and staff at schools citywide, it's as if a collective breath is being held, waiting for something awful to occur.

"The whole situation is a disaster waiting to happen," said Eileen DiFranco, nurse at Roxborough High School. Between this year and last, Roxborough lost its three full-time counselors and gained about 150 students, many from the now-shuttered Germantown High.

DiFranco says many of Roxborough's students suffer extreme grief, abandonment, and the stress of having family members in jail. Now they're coping with these problems while dealing with "overfilled classes, overburdened teachers and no counselors to help."

DiFranco says she's "a helper," but lacking certification and counseling experience, feels very limited in what she can accomplish.

Robin Dominick sends her second grader, Lea, and her fourth grader, Quinn, to Powel Elementary in West Philadelphia. The school's catchment serves everyone from well-paid professionals living in colorful University City Victorians to severely low-income families managing life in homeless shelters.

It's one of the schools served sporadically by an itinerant counselor.

"The kids don't decide, 'Oh well, today's Monday, so I can have a meltdown,'" said Dominick.

At Cook-Wissahickon Elementary school, Principal Karen Thomas laments her school's loss of a "very full-time counselor who [in recent years] has had a lot to do."

Now, she says, the building doesn't have enough adults: "I can remember very easily sitting in the counselor's office with the counselor on the phone with the crisis team, while I was blocking the door so that a young child who was throwing things everywhere wouldn't run out of the building," Thomas said.

For Christine Donnelly, now the sole counselor for the Academy at Palumbo's 855 students, the stakes in this conversation are both real and potentially horrifying. In her 18 years as a counselor, she's lost three students to suicide — the three worst days of her career.

Last year, Palumbo had three counselors for 150 fewer students.

In the current situation, with "more kids and less sets of eyes watching them," said Donnelly, she fears that — even though she's "doing the work of three people the best [she] physically can" — some students will fall by the wayside.

"We want to make sure that they're going to survive the day," said Donnelly, "because maybe something went on that they think that it's a better option for them not to."

"Is it going to take a kid to die for someone to open their eyes?" she asked.

It's academics, too

Guidance counselors do a lot besides crisis management and trauma prevention. They help calm issues that can spoil a classroom's environment. Kristin Luebbert, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at Bache-Martin elementary, offers up a common example: in-fighting among middle school girls.

Last year, Luebbert says, she could count on the school's full-time counselor to pull the girls aside and patch things up over lunch in the privacy of the counseling office. This year, she fears more of these "little problems" will fester to the detriment of the class.

"It reflects on their academics, because if they're going to sit the whole period before lunch and worry about, 'Is that girl going to be mean to me at lunch? Am I going to be mean to her?' then they're not going to be paying attention to what they're supposed to be paying attention to," said Luebbert.

Taking into account staffing shortages school-wide, Christine Donnelly says the current system seems decisively stacked against student success. She says shortages in secretaries and other support staff have made coordinating student files and troubleshooting technical difficulties grand tasks of their own. Add to this the fact that counselors were only rehired a week before school began, and Donnelly says some student requests are simply being left on the shelf.

"It's more chaos because the system's just completely changed. One of the counselors jokingly refers to '440' [District headquarters: 440 N. Broad] as '220' because the staff's been cut in half."

One of the biggest challenges that students and parents will face this year is the "next level" application process. Those in K-4 elementary schools will need to find a middle school. Those in K-8 schools will need to choose from one of the city's plethora of high schools — with district options ranging from neighborhood schools to magnet schools to specialty magnet schools.

And then of course there's the college process, which is especially daunting to the many city families who are hoping their graduating senior will be the first of their clan to reach the ranks of higher education.

Typically guidance counselors make arrangements with area colleges to coordinate a school college fair, but Donnelly says, with her current workload, organizing this type of event would be close to impossible.

"I would not be surprised if more kids are going to community college, and it's not because they can't get in elsewhere," said Donnelly. "It's because they didn't have the supports to help them with the process of the application for the Georgetowns, the NYUs, the University of Pennsylvanias, the you-name-it."

County lines

Across City Avenue, in the schools of affluent Lower Merion, you'll find pretty much what you'd expect: a much rosier scene.

At the elementary school level, every school is endowed with a guidance counselor, a school psychologist, a nurse and a speech/language therapist.

The district's two high schools have one counselor for every 200 high school students — and that does not include the additional support of school psychologists, social workers, a full-time team of nurses, and a college access counselor who focuses solely on helping students navigate the passageways to higher education.

How we got here

Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite agrees that the status quo is "inadequate," but he says it's what the district "can afford right now."

The shortage of counselors in Philadelphia schools stems from the district's decision to spend only the money it can guarantee having on hand for the 2013-14 school year. Last spring, the district asked for $304 million dollars in additional funding from a combination of increased state and city aid and concessions by its labor unions.

To date, the district says it can count on only $83 million dollars — with more than two-thirds of that figure coming from the city. The state has pledged an additional $2 million in basic education funding. The labor question remains unresolved. 

Without the other $221 million, the district has opened schools with only a fraction of the resources it offered last year.

  • 3,000 fewer employees
  • No money for extracurricular activities outside of fall sports
  • No money for instrumental music classes beyond January
  • Basic school supplies at a premium — obtained in many cases by teachers willing to dig into their own wallets
  • Libraries at even the city's most esteemed schools shuttered for lack of staffing

It's the lack of counselors, though, that elicits the most heated passions.

"What kind of an adult even considers opening schools without counselors? What kind of an adult even puts that on paper?" asked DiFranco, school nurse at Roxborogh. "It is so wrong. It is so immoral."

Hite remains hopeful that "there's other people in the buildings that could also provide some support."

Something's gotta give

Many of the district's educators feel that statement by the superintendent puts them, as Christine Donnelly says, "between a rock and a hard place."

One way to better serve her students would be to take on and oversee a staff of interns, graduate students willing to work for school credit. But the larger implications of this "free" labor, she says, are tricky.

Donnelly feels trapped into a hard choice: Work yourself crazy, or take on a brigade of unpaid labor to serve the best interests of the students. Either way, you "let the state off the hook" for the way it's funding schools.

Or, as what Donnelly calls the "hard-core union contingent" would have it: Work only within the strict confines of your contract, and let students' suffering serve as a statement to the politicians.

Donnelly's made her choice.

"It'll be a cold day in hell this year when I leave school at 3 o'clock," Donnelly said. "The fact that now I stay until 6 o'clock means that it's going to look like we don't need another person here. I think they definitely take advantage of our innate spirit as educators."

Endgame

The district says it would cost $17.3 million dollars to restore the 156 counselors that were in the district's core operating budget last year and have yet to be rehired after being laid off in June. This would do away with "itinerant" counselors and restore counselor-to-student ratios to closer to last year's levels.

The state government is still withholding $45 million from the district. The Corbett administration has repeatedly said it will not release this money until the Philadelphia teachers union agrees to a "reform" contract to the state's liking. The district has been asking the union to pay into health care coverage, agree to work-rule changes (such as eliminating seniority), and take pay cuts of up to 13 percent.

The union has thus far indicated that it's willing to negotiate on the issue of health care coverage.

According to math done by WHYY/Newsworks with the aid of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, if the teacher's union contributed 10 percent into their total health coverage, the district would bank an additional $23 million.

Meanwhile, as politicians, administrators and union officials fail to reach agreement, the traumas of the world have not relented.

On the Friday before school began, a 13-year-old student at Port Richmond's AMY at James Martin Middle School drowned in Wissahickon Creek. Trying to save him, his father also drowned.

AMY doesn't have a full-time counselor. When the district found out about the deaths, it sent in a crisis team to help students through the grieving process.

Dennis Dorfman, who spent 34 years as AMY's counselor and retired from the post in June, didn't think the outside team was in the best position to serve the school. So he volunteered to come back to speak with students.  Based on the relationships he had built with them over the years, he was able to work with the most affected students in a group therapy session.

"They want to turn to somebody who they can trust, who they know, who they know has been there for them, who they know is accessible for them, who they feel comfortable enough so they can open up and share," said Dorfman. "That's pretty hard to do with a stranger."

(As a volunteer, Dorfman said he didn't know if he still had the legal clearance to have access to student records, but said he'd continue pitching in until the district tells him otherwise.)

In another instance, on the first day of school, a former student at South Philadelphia High School was shot and killed in his Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood. He attended Southern during the current 11th grade's freshman year.

"We all knew him," said junior Amber Holmes. "You get sad, because that's not supposed to be happening. We're all family. Why is family killing family? It don't make sense."

For Powel Elementary's Robin Dominick, the entire situation is such a mess that unless additional funding comes through, she feels that "this is really going to be a lost year for all the students in Philadelphia."

Across the city, parents, students and staff continue holding their breath, hoping against hope that, for some, fates aren't even worse.