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Disparate roles for school counselors don't work





Imagine that you were being interviewed for a job that required expertise in both engineering and accounting.  Sure, both of those professions involve numbers, but the knowledge, skills and professional networks are vastly different so, chances are if your training were in only one discipline, you would be unable to do both components well.

Then think about the job of the School District high school counselor, in which you would be expected to support students in both behavioral health and post-secondary guidance, two disciplines which are key to a student’s success—and which have little to nothing in common in terms of knowledge, skills and professional networks. 

After 15 years of working on college prep issues as an adviser to the District and five years working on behavioral health advocacy in a highly respected non-profit, I have concluded that it is beyond time for the District to separate these roles into two distinct jobs:  behavioral health counselor and post-secondary guidance counselor.  In those two decades of professional experience, I never encountered a single high school counselor who felt equally comfortable in the behavioral health AND post-secondary guidance roles and several of them reported that the suburban districts where they lived divided these roles into separate jobs.

I offer below some suggestions to  help jump-start the conversation; the suggestions are not exhaustive but I hope will serve as a catalyst for discussion by short-term working groups  of school-, university- and community-based service providers and advocates charged with developing full job descriptions and evaluation criteria for the two distinct roles.

What should a high school behavioral health counselor be expected to do? 

A major responsibility of the behavioral health counselor is to identify both school and student behavioral health needs and to connect them with the appropriate school,  district and community resources.  This focus requires the behavioral health counselor to

  • collaborate with the school’s leadership team in identifying and addressing school climate problems
  •  provide whole-school and group activities to strengthen positive student behavior
  •  ensure that special needs, immigrant/LEP, and troubled students and their families receive prompt access to services, and monitor the impact of these interventions
  •  represent the school in collaborations with city, university and non-profit behavioral health providers, advocates and researchers.

For many years there has been lack of clarity about who and how the District should evaluate behavioral health counseling since most school administrators lack the expertise to do so and  there are too many counselors for a central office administrator to evaluate.  This is an issue that the District must address.

What should a post-secondary guidance counselor be expected to do?

Key responsibilities of the post-secondary guidance counselor include:

  • Introducing students to why they should consider post-secondary study;
  • Organizing  campus visits which include observation of freshman math and English; classes, workshops on admission and financial aid,  a tour of facilities and informal meetings with Philadelphia high school graduates;
  • Organizing workplace visits where students see jobs in action and meet with HR staff to learn about salary, benefits, requirements and application processes;
  • Ensuring that students select appropriate schools/jobs to apply to based on their academic and occupational credentials and financial situations;
  • Providing resources to assist students in completing their post-secondary admissions applications, essays, and financial aid applications and identifying appropriate people for recommendations and doing likewise for job applications;
  • Supporting  parents in understanding why post-secondary study matters and how they can help as well as advising parents of their own post-secondary options;
  • Developing a network of college admission and financial aid officers and job recruiters who host campus/worksite visits, come to the school to meet with students, and provide data on the experience of Philadelphia graduates at their institutions/worksites;
  • Remain up to date on data about which colleges have the greatest affordability and the highest rate of persistence and graduation for Pell grant recipients and use this data in their group and individual advising.  Do likewise for the experience of recent Philadelphia graduates with area employers in terms of job retention and upgrading.

Measurable criteria for evaluations may include trends in the percentage of students who:

  • visit at least three campuses/worksites by January of their senior year;
  • Apply to at least three colleges or employers;
  • Complete the FAFSA for post-secondary study;
  • Matriculate in post-secondary study/begin a job with at least a $12/hourly wage;
  • Remain enrolled in post-secondary study for at least 2 years and with an employer for at least one year.

As financial resources continue to grow within the district and as District and City leaders agree on the need to expand both the quantity and quality of behavioral health and post-secondary  guidance resources, this is a good time to create two doable jobs to replace a single Mission Impossible.

Debra Weiner is a longtime advocate for public education at a variety of nonprofit organizations and higher education institutions. She is a member of the Notebook's editorial advisory board.


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