One of my graduate school professors once likened the role of a licensed School Counselor to trying to catch students as they go over a waterfall. Adolescence (and pre-adolescence) is a turbulent time and for young people this time can often feel like the rapids are raging all around them. The challenge our professor gave us was to try to catch students before they went over the falls. Imagine the number of students in Boston right now slipping through because they don’t have a School Counselor to help catch them and provide support.
Homelessness. Trauma. Finding and applying to high schools and colleges. Family challenges. Peer mediation. Attendance issues. Conflict resolution. Home visits. Challenges with teachers. Each student I work with as a Boston Public School Counselor has their own unique needs and challenges — and often they experience many of them all at once. Supporting them is my job, and I love every minute of it. Advocating with and on behalf of young people is the job I was born to do.
At UP Academy Boston, I support 165 8th graders, each with unique and pressing needs, so my time with each of them is precious. If this sounds like a lot, my colleague who has 938 students to support would probably jump for joy at the chance to support this number of students. I cannot speak to her full experience except to say that she spends much of her time responding to crises. While responding to crisis situations is an important part of a School Counselor’s job, it leaves little time for interventions such proactive planning, outreach to service providers, collaboration with teachers, and supporting students not in crisis, just to name a few.
In BPS, we currently have 107 counselors serving a district that includes 27,300 students in grades 6-12. While there is a contractually mandated rate of one counselor for every 300 students in high school and one for every 400 students in middle school, those figures represent a citywide average, and therefore does not always apply to every school. Since they are not covered by the language in the current contract, many K-5 and K-8 schools – more than 50% of the Boston Public School population – are currently without a licensed School Counselor.
Additionally, our 107 current counselors are not equitably staffed in our highest need schools. There are some public schools in Boston that have as many as eight licensed School Counselors to support their student body. Let me be clear: I think this is a great phenomenon, and those students and their families are blessed to have those great educators supporting them every day. At the same time, there are many other schools in Boston that have no licensed School Counselors at all. Are these children in less need of support? Not at all. Are they less deserving than those who happen to be a better-resourced school? Of course not. Social-emotional support, as one of the district’s stated priorities, should be given the same equitable staffing we would give to staffing core content areas.
We must take steps to equitably provide support students in ALL our Boston Public Schools. This starts with our next contract, currently being negotiated between the School Department and the Boston Teachers Union.
Right now there are more than 40 schools that serve students between K-8, which are not subject to any of the contract provisions for counselor:student ratios. With over 30,000 students in schools with these grade configurations, this leaves more than 50% of BPS students without a licensed School Counselor to support them. There are also principals who have found a way to make School Counselors a budgeting priority, but without any mandate or accountability, we are leaving student support services to the whims of the next school administrator. The time is now to address this issue.
As the BuildBPS plan rolls out in the coming years, it seems likely that Interim Superintendent Perille and her team are set on transitioning to set grade configurations of K-6 and 7-12 while retaining some K-8 and 9-12. As the teacher’s contract is currently written, neither of these configurations is subject to the counselor ratio requirements as written in the contract language. We must speak out, on behalf of our licensed School Counselors, but more importantly on behalf of our students. This new contract and the BuildBPS plan rollout that will follow will likely shape our schools for decades to come.
This problem is within our locus of control and the next teacher’s contract represents a golden opportunity to address the inequitable distribution of support services for students in Boston. Thousands of young people in our city are approaching the waterfall every day — let’s make sure we catch them.
Dan Goldsbury is a BTU member and a School Counselor at UP Academy Boston. He’s the proud parent of a 10-year-old and 8-year old. This op-ed was published in the March 7 Boston Bulletin.