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Few College Counselors At CPS Add Uncertainty To Post-Grad Push

The average Chicago high school has significantly fewer counselors than experts recommend, a WBEZ analysis has found, raising questions about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new plan to require every student to graduate with firm post-high school plans. 

There’s one counselor on average for every 296 high school students, according to records from Chicago Public Schools. That figure excludes the city’s public charter schools. 

The American School Counselor Association, the country’s leading professional organization for counselors, recommends an average of one counselor for every 250 students. 

Jade Aguilar, a senior at Steinmetz College Prep on the Northwest Side, said she has seen her counselor only three times over her four years of high school. 

“Counselors are overbooked,” she said. “They are doing scheduling for the students and then they are doing these tests that are just ridiculous.”

Aguilar wishes her counselor could have helped her grapple with some personal issues that kept her from focusing on school. She said she’s headed to a community college after graduation. 

CPS’ understaffing problem has moved to center stage now that Emanuel and CPS leaders want every public school senior to produce a college acceptance letter or proof of a job offer in order to graduate. The Chicago Board of Education is expected to vote on the new requirement in the next few months.

Despite the understaffing, CPS isn’t planning on hiring beyond the school’s district’s 265 counselors, prompting many educators and students to wonder whether this new graduation requirement will work. 

The WBEZ analysis of school records also found:

  • Counselors at schools with majority Latino student populations have the highest caseloads and have increased significantly since Emanuel was elected mayor in 2011. Counselors at Schurz High School in Old Irving Park on the Northwest Side, for example, are assigned 500 students, up from 337 in 2011.
  • Schools with majority black populations have the smallest caseloads. But the numbers obscure a troubling reality: Schools with dwindling populations, such as Manley in Garfield Park, may have one counselor for just 177 total students, but many of those schools serve students that most need help making plans for life after high school. 

The school district would like more counselors but can’t afford it, said Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson. The district’s central office pays for one counselor per school and then principals decide how many more they can afford.

“Our financial reality is our financial reality,” Jackson said. She said the district is going to put $2 million in next year’s budget for some additional training for counselors and a small number of “post-secondary specialists” to work with groups of schools.

But when pressed on the limitations inherent in a high counselor-to-student ratio, Jackson argued more counselors aren’t necessarily needed for the new graduation requirement. Counselors are already tasked with helping students make post-high school plans now, even if it’s not a graduation requirement, she said.

Nonetheless, she did acknowledge that about 40 percent of students still leave high school without a firm post-high school plan, according to CPS estimates. Jackson said she hopes the new requirement forces school staff to reach out to students who are not currently receiving help, even if they’re understaffed.

“There are schools where maybe the college-going culture has not been established, so these conversations are not happening as much,” Jackson said.

School counselors told WBEZ they try to help students make plans but high caseloads limit what they can achieve. Paige Stenzel, a counselor at Mather High School in West Ridge, said her job got much harder this year when the college counselors dropped from five to three at a school with 1,500 students. 

“We used to be able to have individual meetings and goal setting with all of our students twice a year,” she said. Now, it’s all about “putting out fires and taking kids we don't know and putting them in a classroom and saying, ‘Now apply to a City College so we can say you went somewhere.’ It is so impersonal.”

At Harlan High School, the counselor to student ratio is more manageable. Two counselors work with fewer than 500 students, according to CPS data. But Harlan Counselor Tamara Steele said getting students at her Far South Side school to commit to a post-secondary plan has actually gotten more difficult over time. 

Harlan is like many neighborhood high schools struggling to hold on to its population at a time when students can choose their high school. This has left the school with a greater concentration of lower-performing students.

And then, because funding is based on enrollment, Harlan’s budget in recent years has been cut, sending a demoralizing message to students, Steele said. Harlan’s budget was cut almost $1 million last year. 

“They are like, ‘They don't care about us, so why should I care?’” Steele said, adding that a big part of her job is getting students to believe in themselves.

Despite CPS’ limited number of counselors, Steele said she still thinks the graduation requirement is smart. Like many counselors interviewed by WBEZ, Steele said it could help ensure that counselors reach beyond only the most-motivated, highest performing students.

Sarah Karp is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @SSKedreporter or @WBEZeducation.

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