In 2013, the Philadelphia School District laid off all of its school counselors due to budget cuts. Yes, 100 percent.

That spring, during what some referred to as a “lost year” for students, several of the laid-off workers gathered to form the Philly School Counselors United. Over five years of PSCU advocacy for the district to fix the situation, it has become somewhat less dire.

While Philadelphia still has more school police than school counselors, the district’s formula now provides funding for at least one per about 950 kids.

It’s a ratio local advocates still consider far too high.

Counseling has been shown to benefit students in many ways, including increasing the college matriculation rate, especially for students in low-income homes, first-generation Americans, and students of color. Of the 324 counselors currently employed by the district, some schools end up with just one. Averaged numerically, the counselor-to-student ratio is 1 to 392, while the recommendation from the American School Counselor Association is 1 to 250.

With a new awareness campaign, PSCU hopes to encourage policy change to bring Philly’s rate much closer to optimal.

On MLK Day, more than 600 people filled the auditorium of Penn’s Zellerbach Theatre for the launch of the new outreach and impact initiative. The audience watched a screening of Personal Statement, and then took part in a discussion with local education activists, including Councilwoman Helen Gym and Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg of the Public Interest Law Center.

A mission born in West Philadelphia

A feature-length documentary, Personal Statement is about “three Brooklyn high school seniors who are determined to get their entire classes to college, even though they aren’t even sure they are going to make it there themselves,” per the film’s synopsis.

Though she lives in NYC, director Juliane Dressner is a Penn grad who got to know Philly schools first hand.

While Dressner was in college, during the ’80s, she had a “transformative” experience working at John P. Turner Middle School in West Philadelphia as an art teacher apprentice, she said. It was a hands-on assignment for her history course with Dr. Ira Harkavy, founding director of Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships.

“We were exploring ways in which the university could better serve as a resource to the community,” Dressner said, explaining that they developed and tested a curriculum for a multicultural ceramic class.

Ever since then, she’s been interested in documenting youth organizing and community work.

“Looking back at my time at Penn,” Dressner said, “I realize I have now come full circle.”

‘Much more than numbers’

Heather Marcus is a PSCU member and counselor at magnet school Masterman on Spring Garden.

When she first saw Personal Statement, she told Billy Penn, she knew she wanted to organize a screening in Philly.

“The students in the film are incredibly inspirational,” Marcus said. “The public needs to remember that we’re talking about young people, each with their challenges and their own stories. They’re much more than numbers. The film helps people to see that and brings the statistics to a personal, individual level.”

When Marcus approached Dressner with the idea, it ended up being the perfect fit.

“We decided to bring this film to Philadelphia because it sheds light on a profoundly important but often overlooked cause of the achievement gap,” Dressner said. “The fact that students don’t receive adequate counseling in the college application process.”

A call to action

After the screening on MLK Day — which was co-sponsored by the Philadelphia Student Union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools — and the associated panel discussion, which included two of the film’s subjects, Marcus encouraged supporters to:

  • Sign the petition, which urges the State of Pennsylvania and City of Philadelphia to provide additional funding for the School District of Philadelphia and school districts throughout the state to allocate more school counselors to public schools
  • Contact their elected officials
  • Speak at school board meetings to reiterate the importance of lowering the counselor to student ratio

She also asked everyone to write a postcard to the governor with a suggested message reading: “We need an additional $510 million a year to fund our schools. Resources like school counselors are essential and a basic need, not an extra.”

The postcards will be hand-delivered to Governor Tom Wolf by State Representative Elizabeth Fiedler and advocates from Public Citizens for Children & Youth. Dressner and Marcus both agreed that their campaign’s inaugural event was a powerful motivator to continue with their mission.