Problematic

Too few and too busy: With school counselors overwhelmed, Indiana kids fall through cracks

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
The IPS administration is proposing adding more career training programs to high schools.

As a school counselor, Aimee Portteus helps hundreds of kids every year — but it’s the ones she can’t quite help who stay with her.

Just last year, she had two smart, promising students who were all set to head to college. She’d worked with them since they were 9th graders at Plymouth High School in northern Indiana and was thrilled when their hard work in class and on their college applications paid off with acceptance letters.

Then, bad news: both students failed Algebra II and learned they wouldn’t earn their Core 40 diplomas, which are designed to assure graduates are ready for college.

In both cases, the colleges put the students on notice that they were no longer welcome and would have to find another way to pursue their academic dreams.

Portteus was crestfallen, knowing she could have helped these students — if only she’d had more time.

“If I had more time, I would have been able to help them get through that class,” she said.

But time is not a luxury afforded to many Indiana high school counselors. These two students were among 333 students assigned to Portteus last year.

That’s far more students than the 250-student maximum recommended by the American School Counselor Association but by Indiana standards, it’s actually a fairly light load.

The average Indiana school counselor is responsible for 634 students, ranking the state among the worst in the country for counselor workload.

The cost to the state of that workload is enormous, said Matt Fleck, a former counselor and consultant who has studied the challenges preventing school counselors from helping their students succeed after graduation.

“You hear all the time from people ‘I fell through the cracks,’” Fleck said.

If counselors are too busy to help them, “that is is the opportunity (to) …. have a true impact on their lives that is lost,” he said.

As Indiana pushes for more students, especially those from poor families, to complete a college degree or technical training that will help them get valuable jobs, the stakes are high. Advocates say having too-few counselors is one of the biggest barriers holding students back.

It’s a problem exacerbated by the fact that the people charged with guiding students are increasingly saddled with unmanageable workloads — and proposals to help them have so far fallen short.

For Portteus, that means her days are crammed with coordinating student testing, pushing administrative paperwork such as individualized learning plans and planning for academic interventions. She works with the school social worker, collaborates with teachers, coaches students through academic and emotional challenges and helps them figure out whether they’re headed for college or a career after graduation.

That doesn’t leave much time for things like knowing students which are struggling with Algebra II and could use some help. There’s just too many kids who need attention.

“You’d be amazed how much a few extra kids makes a difference,” Portteus said.

* * *

Many things separate the students who graduate and go on to promising careers from those who are left behind — luck, privilege, parent involvement.

But Mandy Savitz-Romer, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a former school counselor herself, says having an available and knowledgeable counselor can make an important difference for kids, especially kids from low-income communities.

“Counselors are essential to closing the achievement gap,” Savitz-Romer said. “But counselors’ roles are often poorly-defined and their conditions are flawed.”

With limited resources and increasing demands from state testing programs and other requirements, counselors are often pulled away from their essential work.

“We did the math a couple years ago,” said Julie Baumgart, chairwoman of the American School Counselor Association board and head of the counseling department at Western Boone Junior-Senior High School in the rural community of Thorntown. “If you take a full-time school counselor, the number of school days, take out the 40 percent of non-counseling tasks, and take out the time for passing periods, we have less than 30 minutes per student to meet their socio-emotional, academic and college and career readiness goals each year.”

A study by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce showed that a majority of counselors reported spending no more than a quarter of their time on college and career counseling and that the amount of time spent on non-counselor work had doubled since 2010.

But as Indiana lawmakers are increasingly pushing for students to be better prepared for college or careers after high school, advocates say the state needs to do a better job of providing counselors with crucial training and needed resources.

One obvious way to increase counseling time is to simply hire more counselors, but efforts to increase funding for Indiana school counselors have not gone far with lawmakers.

When Dennis Kruse, the Auburn Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, last year introduced legislation that would have required every elementary school to have a counselor, he later withdrew the bill due to concerns about its cost.

That has counseling advocates looking for alternatives that would at least reduce some of the extra work that has been landing on counselors. Efforts in the works include a push to give counselors better data to help streamline their efforts, to provide more training opportunities and to provide incentives for schools that could encourage them to invest in their counselors.

The data effort is coming from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. The department sees counselors as key players who can help better direct students to opportunities after high school and is working on putting better tools in their hands.

The department is building a data network designed to forecast the future of Indiana’s job growth and the to identify the skills workers will need. It’s calling for better training for counselors to help them effectively use that information.

“The time they have to spend on actual counseling is small and the work they do is critical,” said Amy Marsh, the department’s chief operating officer for business intelligence. “Because of their time constraints, we need to provide this information regularly and electronically.”

* * *

Another effort to improve student counseling is coming from the Chamber Foundation, a policy research foundation connected with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which has funded several studies into school counselors and how they do their jobs.

One of the foundation’s most recent studies found a divide between what students need to know and what businesses expect. The report called for counselors to be better equipped to help students.

“We are hearing from our businesses that our students aren’t ready,” said Christy Huston, the foundation’s executive director. “The Chamber Foundation believes that collaboration between employers and schools’ counseling staff is ideal for tackling college and career preparedness.”

The foundation is exploring the launching of an awards program that would recognize counseling best practices and schools with excellent school counselors and college and career readiness programs. That program, however, is in the beginning stages, Huston said.

The Indiana Department of Education already recognizes Gold Star schools, which are schools with comprehensive counseling programs that follow state standards. Schools that mimic a national model counseling program proposed by the American School Counselor Association can also earn a special designation from that group.

But doubts remain about whether incentives are enough to get schools to work toward better counseling.

The counselor association will again push for new laws that would require schools to have plans for training counselors in career and college readiness.

“We had proposed a college and career readiness certification program,” Baumgart said of another idea the group pushed that went nowhere.

Butler University offers such a certificate program for school counselors but there is no statewide recognition of the credential.

Still, advocates warn that training and data can only go so far and that counselors won’t be able to get more students into college or career training until they can focus their energy on the duties that matter most.

“As a nation, the first thing is to put a spotlight on these issues,” Savitz-Romer said. “Counselors are an asset to schools, we just haven’t leveraged them.”

moving on up

With Holcomb’s support, Indiana’s next education plan heads to Washington

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Gov. Eric Holcomb address lawmakers and the public during his State of the State Address earlier this year. Today, he signed off on Indiana's ESSA plan.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has given his stamp of approval to Indiana’s next education plan under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

In a tweet Monday afternoon, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick thanked Holcomb for his support:

Holcomb was required to weigh in on the plan, but his approval wasn’t necessary for it to move forward. If he disagreed with the changes proposed by McCormick and the Indiana Department of Education, he could have indicated that today.

So far, it seems that the state’s top education policymakers — Holcomb, McCormick and the Indiana State Board of Education — have reached some level of consensus on how to move forward.

The state has worked for months to revamp its accountability system and educational goals to align with ESSA, which Congress passed in 2015.

Although there are many similarities between this plan and the previous plan under the No Child Left Behind waiver, several changes affect state A-F grades. Going forward, they will factor in measures that recognize the progress of English-learners and measures not solely based on test scores, such as student attendance.

However, the new plan also alters the state’s graduation rate formula to match new federal requirements, a change that has a number of educators, policymakers and parents worried because it means students who earn a general diploma no longer count as graduates to the federal government.

You can read more about the specifics of the state plan in our ESSA explainer and see all of our ESSA coverage here.

approaching deadline

In year three of New York City’s massive school turnaround program, the big question is: What’s next?

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks with East Flatbush Community Research School Principal Daveida Daniel during a visit of the Renewal middle school.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña walked into a classroom at Longwood Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, where students were absorbed with gleaming iMacs and recording equipment.

She paused for a moment, watching the teacher shuttle between students experimenting with audio-editing software.

“Look at the attention these kids are getting,” Fariña said, praising the school’s new vocational program in digital media. “It’s a feeling of renewed vigor and energy.”

With the smell of fresh paint still hanging in the air, Fariña’s visit was meant to highlight the enormous investments the city has made in dozens of schools that have floundered for years — including this one.

Under its former name, Banana Kelly, the school suffered from one of the highest dropout rates in the city, churned through four principals in five years, and struggled with serious safety incidents. (A previous principal was doused with pepper spray, and in 2012 was shot with a BB pellet outside the building.)

Now — as one of several back-to-school check-ins at some of the 78 schools the city is currently trying to revamp — Fariña was eager to praise the school’s energetic principal and its recent gains. Its attendance and graduation rates have improved in recent years, though its 2016 graduation rate (which is the latest figure publicly available) still lagged behind schools with similar student populations.

The visit comes as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s three-year effort to revive long-struggling schools, including the former Banana Kelly, is rapidly approaching its third birthday this November. The “Renewal” program — which has cost at least $383 million so far — is arguably the mayor’s most ambitious education reform, an effort to nurse some of the city’s lowest-performing schools back to health with extra social services and academic support rather than shut them down.

And while some experts say it’s too soon to expect big payoffs, de Blasio’s three-year timeline for “fast and intense improvement” has invited scrutiny into whether the program is translating into better outcomes for students.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña tours Longwood Prep with Principal Asya Johnson (right) and student Heaven Molina.

“Enough time has elapsed that there is an appetite for looking at results,” said Aaron Pallas, a Teachers College professor who has studied the program.

Meanwhile, the exit strategy for schools in the Renewal program remains unclear. Despite promises that schools released from the program won’t lose the extra support they’ve come to rely upon, some school personnel are nervous that extra funding, counselors, and social services could be scaled back.

“There are some principals whose reaction is: ‘We really need to get it together because next year these [partner organization] resources might not be here,’” said Derek Anello, a program director with the nonprofit Partnership with Children who oversees staff in four Renewal schools. “Lots of people are experiencing it as the last of the three years.”

Planning for life after Renewal

Felicia Guerrier has helped usher in a new wave of social services at  P.S. 298 Dr. Betty Shabazz in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a Renewal school where 96 percent of students come from low-income families, and which used to suffer from “a love drought and a resource drought,” as she recently put it.

She supervises two new full-time social workers, oversees vision and dental services now offered out of the school’s auditorium, and coordinates with a nursing service that helps keep student health issues like asthma and diabetes in check — resources she says have led to a big boost in attendance and family involvement at the school.

But she’s already started handing off some of her responsibilities, out of a concern that the nonprofit she works for, Partnership with Children, might eventually be forced to reduce its role at the school. (Some nonprofits in Renewal schools are unsure whether their contracts will be extended past this school year.)

Guerrier explained that she’s now taking a back seat in meetings, making sure the assistant principal is in the loop to coordinate with health providers, and positioning the school’s parent coordinator to help run a food pantry for students and their families.

“I’m feeling the pressure to make sure there is some type of lasting power with what’s happening even when I’m gone,” she said.

While the mayor vowed in 2014 that the original cohort of 94 Renewal schools would be revamped or shuttered within three years (16 schools have already been closed or folded into other schools), the city has indicated the program will continue beyond this year. And officials stressed that the work of nonprofit organizations like Partnership with Children won’t end even if schools are taken out of the program.

“Steady improvement is key, and of course we will evaluate each school that is ready to transition from the program and provide them with the right supports to maintain their improvement,” Aimee Horowitz, the executive superintendent for Renewal schools, said in a statement.

An unclear exit strategy

Even as the Renewal schools move forward with their reforms, a big question hangs over them: How exactly do they exit the program? So far, no schools have left it without being combined with another school or closed.

This August, Mayor de Blasio said that would change. In addition to more closures, he said some schools could graduate out of the program, and others might stay past the three-year deadline.

“We have to work out the details,” de Blasio said, “but we’re not going to leave a school in the lurch.”

In making decisions about which schools to shutter or merge in the past, the city has looked at test scores, enrollment changes, principal effectiveness, and attendance rates — though officials have said there aren’t strict cutoffs, making it difficult to predict which schools could depart the program this fall.

If schools are released from Renewal, it remains to be seen whether they’ll continue to enjoy the same level of support and extra resources.

Brian Bradley, principal of Renaissance School of the Arts in East Harlem, said he is preparing for the possibility that this will be his school’s last year in the program. Renewal, he said, has made a real difference: Additional training for teachers has improved classroom instruction, aggressive outreach is boosting attendance, and the community school director has taken over once-overlooked administrative responsibilities.

“We have a great partnership and that has been the number one thing,” he said.

The school only banked on three years of support, but Bradley noted he has come to rely on extra funding the school receives to lengthen the school day. It’s a feature of the Renewal program that has a dual payoff, he said: more time for student learning and a pay bump that helps reduce teacher turnover.

While he’s already looking for sponsorships or other ways to fund his new programs, he’s aware that his school might have improved its way out of extra money and help.

“I have definitely used the phrase ‘victim of our own success,’” he said, “and that could be the reality.”

Looking for results

The program’s three-year anniversary doesn’t just create uncertainty for Renewal schools, it also raises questions about whether de Blasio’s signature turnaround program is working.

Some advocates of the mayor’s strategy have expressed concerns that his promise of rapid improvement was too aggressive. They say school turnarounds usually require well over three years, especially when they hinge on cultivating partnerships with social service organizations — a new task for many school leaders.

City officials have pointed to better attendance, test scores and graduation rates in some schools, but many others have not yet made significant academic gains. And researchers who have tried to sort out whether the program has led to academic improvements have reached mixed conclusions.

Using three years of test score data (including the results released last month), the Manhattan Institute’s Marcus Winters found that the program is generally boosting math and English scores in elementary and middle schools.

But using a different statistical method that compares Renewal schools to similar ones that didn’t receive extra resources, Teachers College’s Pallas found the program appeared to have no effect on test scores or graduation rates. (He has not yet updated his analysis to include the latest test scores.)

Renewal schools remain under pressure to raise their scores. To aid in that process, education staffers who work with the schools have pushed them to target increasingly specific groups of underperforming students, according to Partnership with Children’s Derek Anello.

“In the prior two years we were more general in what the goals were,” Anello said. Now, “There’s really a microscope on every number and how we move the needle.”

Yet even if schools don’t make huge strides this year, some observers say the mayor is unlikely to change course. Many argue that adding social services to high-need schools enhances students’ health and wellness, even if it doesn’t result in swift academic improvements. The city has invested heavily in creating social service-rich “community schools,” which include more than 130 schools outside the Renewal program.

Even if Renewal’s academic results are mixed, Professor Pallas of Teachers College predicts that de Blasio won’t face strong political pressure to scale back his resource-intensive approach to school improvement, which has generally earned support from local politicians and the teachers union.

The program “resonates with progressives’ desire to support community-based schools,” he said. But, he added, “at some point somebody’s got to make the difficult decision about whether the benefits are worth the investments they’re making.”