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There is a National Scarcity in School Counselors, Here’s How D.C. Public Schools Perform

By Jazlyn White

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Stakeholders in the education sector have shown ongoing concern about the national scarcity of counselors. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends schools follow a student-to-counselor ratio of 250:1, and D.C. Public schools seemingly adhere to this criteria. Counseling is mandated for all grades, and middle and high schools in D.C. must also have an additional career counselor on staff. Schools like Woodrow Wilson High School and the Columbia Heights Education Campus, an elementary and middle school, have a larger student population with 1,951 and 1,477 students respectively. The average public school in D.C., however, has approximately 377 students, with public high schools having a higher average by about 100 students (Public School Review, 2023). Statistics like these suggest that students receive adequate counseling.

Similarly, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) are providing mental health resources for students. During the 2019-20 school year there was, on average, one mental health professional for every 206 pre-kindergarten to grade 12 students across the city (D.C. Policy Center, 2021). These efforts continued through the 2021-22 school year as the district addressed vacant mental health and DBH-assigned clinical positions in schools by starting a Youth Mental Health Ambassador program for high schoolers. Nevertheless, counseling is an interdisciplinary job with responsibilities ranging from scheduling to analyzing data to assess students’ behavioral needs, to guiding students through their academic careers. Integrating mental health resources and curriculums into schools still does not entirely replace school counseling but, instead, shows the district’s dedication to supporting and nurturing students, especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and students reporting increased stress, anxiety, and feelings of isolation.

Nevertheless, DCPS’s consistent struggles with attendance reiterate that children still feel unsupported, and recent studies link their disengagement to their racial identities. 39% of Black students and 48% of designated “at-risk” students were chronically absent during the 2020-21 school year – a majority of at-risk are from Wards 7 and 8, a majority-Black districts, so these demographics overlap. (“At-risk” students are those that receive certain public benefits, experience homelessness, are over-age in schools, and are in the foster care system.) These rates are in comparison to just 6% of White students (D.C. Policy Center, 2021). The statistics from the 2020-21 school year, while not the most recent, are the only data set that presents chronic absenteeism rates for each grade band. Observing by grade band reveals a sharp uptick in chronic absenteeism from middle to high school. For example, the 29% of Black middle schoolers increases to 40% in Black high schoolers, and this trend is consistent across all demographics. Students in urban areas are frequently responsible for their school commutes by the end of middle school, so lower attendance could be reflective of their autonomy and that they do not feel served by schools. Although these statistics reflect student attendance during virtual and hybrid learning, chronic absenteeism continued when schools returned to in-person learning, soaring to 48% of all students in 2021-22 and 59% of all Black students.

The disparities in chronic absentee rates suggest students experience differential support in D.C. schools based on race and other socioeconomic factors, and chronic absenteeism can also be linked to racial trauma. Scholars have worked to define racial stress and present ways for adults to identify this trauma in Black and Brown students, even linking it to psychological disorders such as PTSD (Kappan Online, 2019; Lee and Robinson, 2019). Decreased school engagement has been identified as an academic symptom of racial trauma in Black youth, as well as impaired academic self-concepts (Kappan Online, 2019). Decreased school engagement is typically measured by attendance, or rather absence, rates in students. Considering that older students – whose academic progress is geared toward college preparation than basic development – are showing higher rates of chronic absence, it is plausible that they also suffer from impaired academic self-concepts. Experiences with both teachers and counselors contribute to academic disengagement, but this phenomenon ultimately ties back to a counselor’s academic and postsecondary guidance responsibilities.

In fact, scholars typically advocate for more counselors in schools with a large number of socioeconomically disadvantaged students, commonly referred to as “high-poverty” schools (CLASP, 2015). Quality counseling can combat institutionalized racism by helping students – frequently both Black and low-income – cultivate their interests, assess their skills and readiness, and explain financial options for college, providing marginalized students with resources that their families and communities typically are not familiar with (CLASP, 2015). Disparate access to GATE and AP curriculums makes adequate, culturally-affirming counseling for Black youth more crucial than ever.

Considering that there are only 67 full-time counselors in the district, expected to accommodate the 49,896 students (US News), providing secondary students in D.C. with additional counseling support could be the key to combating academic disengagement. (Scarcities in full-time counselors mean schools often share part-time counselors.)


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