Sunday, February 3, 2019

BAT member highlight: Increase the number of school counselors in our schools!

Heather Marcus has been a member of Badass Teachers Association for four years. As a member that joins in on our conversations often, she began to have that moment of realization that it was time for more than just talk, it was time to act.
Heather is a school counselor in the Philadelphia School District. Having gone through the Philly school system herself and with both parents being educators, it was a natural pathway for her to follow in their footsteps. After teaching for seven years, Heather went back and got her Master’s in Elementary and Secondary School Counseling. Teaching was a great foundation for her current position. Heather is now employed as one of three school counselors at an academic magnet school. While this school is one of the top schools in the state with a 100% graduation rate and all students moving on to four year colleges, all students need support from school counselors so the job can be   very overwhelming.  
Being one of three school counselors at a school with 1200 students means that Heather carries a caseload of around 400 students; students that span grades 5 to 12. Currently only two of these counselors are actually funded by the overall district budget. The current principal of the school recognizes the importance of students having access to counselors and funds one of the positions out of the building’s discretionary funds. But that still is not enough. Working with middle and high school students simultaneously comes with many challenges. For example, approximately 60% of the seniors seek early admission into colleges. Early Decision/Early Action college applications are due on November 1 each year. All eighth graders must apply to high school, and this year the District moved the deadline to November 2. So, counselors are working with seniors and eighth graders on applications while also helping students in all grades with mental health issues and other difficulties.
Other responsibilities are carried by these counselors, as are found in any school. Helping students make post-secondary plans, supporting academic and social-emotional needs, meeting with students, families, and teachers when grades are dipping to make support plans are all daily tasks. Making time available to listen and guide students when they come in to talk about arguments with friends or partners, issues at home, or questions about gender and sexuality can become tough, but counselors know it is a priority. Then there are the emergency moments where all work needs to stop so the counselor can focus on a student that presents with suicidal ideation, or mentions abuse, and even threatens to harm others.
Yearly planning responsibilities cover setting up college visits, college fairs, teaching lessons in Jr. and Sr, seminars, training on Naviance, the Common App and FAFSA. Testing is a whole other area that school counselors have been pushed into, proctoring state tests, AP exams, setting up PSAT and SAT days. Counselors are stretched thin and unfortunately, we have seen a decrease in the number of school counselors across the nation and an increase of trauma that affects a child’s ability to excel in school. Some schools have more school resource officers than counselors, and we have to question this approach. A reactive attempt to control behavior will not be a long term solution to the growing crisis that is enveloping the lives of our youth. We need more school counselors to support and guide students.
But numbers in terms of caseloads and statistics do not tell the whole story. It dehumanizes the way we look at the educational experiences of our youth and is not always effective in showing the true harm of not providing the services that our students need.
Heather knew that we needed to humanize the narrative and show personal stories to make stakeholders actually see how the lack of school counselors was affecting students on a personal level. She heard about a film called “Personal Statement” and watched the trailer. (View trailer here: ) Personal Statement, directed by Juliane Dressner, is “a feature-length documentary that follows Karoline, Christine and Enoch through their senior year and into college. They work tirelessly as peer college counselors to realize better futures for themselves and their peers. They struggle and they stumble, but refuse to succumb to the barriers that prevent so many low-income students from attending and graduating from college.”
After watching just the trailer, Heather knew that this might be just what she needed to bring to Philadelphia to help personalize how not having enough school counselors affects students. After contacting the film Director and screening the whole documentary, Heather became convinced that this film needed to be seen by the public and by politicians..
Personal Statement is an amazing documentary about how these students were trained through a college counseling organization to become peer counselors to help their friends navigate the pathway to college, all while trying to get themselves there as well. The story speaks to the extra burden that students took on, above dealing with their own hardships, to step up and create change within their community. It leaves viewers questioning why there is such a gap in services that these students even had to take on these roles, instead of just enjoying their high school years. It leaves us all with the big question, “Where are all of the school counselors?”
Heather was able to partner with the Dean of Admissions at The University of Pennsylvania, and they provided a space to show the film. Working hard to fill a theater of over 900 seats, the showing on January 21st was a success with about 600 attendees at the event. Area colleges were contacted, inviting students as well as staff. Local and state politicians were invited; with a few able to attend. What really speaks to how important everyone views this issue is the fact that so many people came out on a day where the wind chill in Philly was nearly at 0o. Also included in the program was a panel discussion with City Councilperson Helen Gym, a Philly school counselor, a Philly high school senior, and two of the students that were featured in the film. The audience was able to ask questions and a robust conversation took place. Attendees even participated in an on-the-spot action by filling out postcards to send to Governor Wolf demanding an increase in educational funding and specifically additional funding for more counselors. Heather also created a petition to ask the city and state to provide more funding for school counselors in Philadelphia and throughout the state. You can sign the petition here:
Please share it on your social media too.
The media covered the event, and Heather was even featured on the local NBC10 news on the morning of the event. Here’s some of the coverage: 
NBC10 News:
The Philadelphia Public School Notebook:
KYW Newsradio:
Billy Penn:
Heather knows that the work is not done yet. Having a successful screening of this film was only the beginning. She is currently setting up more screenings, and there are follow up meetings being held with stakeholders and decision makers. She is already thinking of next steps and more ways to get the message out that our youth need access to more counselors, in all schools, in all districts.
We all say that, “Yes, school counselors are important.” But what has really been done to secure funding for additional school counselors to be hired? Heather found her passion for advocacy through wanting to create change in her own piece of the world. She set out to do this with no budget and little experience. But when you care about something so deeply you get creative, and you make it happen.
P.S.- This week is National School Counseling Week (February 4-8, 2019). Be sure to wish a Happy National School Counseling Week to the counselor(s) at your school! You can even print and sign a proclamation from this website:

Are you a BAT that is actively working to create change in your district or community? Reach out to us at to be highlighted in a future member feature!

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