In Need of Guidance

High school counselors are playing pal, shrink, and surrogate parent for stressed-out kids. So who’s planning students’ academic future?

Photographs by Mark Morelli

It was 25 years ago that Brockton High School counselor Tom Ross painted the message in brown stencil letters on the institutional yellow cinderblock wall. It ends with the pitch: “The only reason you have anything is to give it away.” At the time, the maxim was an expression of 1970s idealism. But now it’s nothing more than the God-honest truth. Ross has given it all away. And then some.

“This is the busiest year I’ve had in all the years I have been here,” says Ross. “I am usually very laid-back. There aren’t too many things that stress me out. But I have been stressed out several times this year. You have a kid who comes in and cuts herself, then a kid comes in who has attempted suicide, then another is screaming because he just got suspended and he hates the teacher. You go from one to another to another. And the whole time the phone is ringing and kids are banging on the door, ‘Why can’t you see me?’ You walk out and your head is ready to explode.”

Newton North’s Tom Sheehan:
His job has gotten more demanding.

As Ross and several of his colleagues talk about the stressful realities of high school counseling in 2002, kids peek in through a tiny window in the door. Different faces appear, but the message is the same: Man, aren’t you done yet? The kids need to talk. And they need to talk now.

Guidance is not what it was 20 years ago–or even a few years ago, for that matter. The high school guidance office is not a quiet place off the school’s beaten track. It is the school’s epicenter, the place where problems of families and the world run up against the academic demands of teachers, schools, and the state.

Frazzled teens present an ever-widening array of emotional and family problems to staff who once mainly worked out course-schedule conflicts. Meanwhile, now that nearly every student, not just the academic elite, needs some kind of post-secondary education to have any hope of success in the world, taking the right courses, earning that diploma, and getting into the right college have become school-wide obsessions. And all these kids depend on the same small crew of counselors to steer them through the chaos of their lives, both emotional and academic.

The problem is that even as guidance counselors–bless their hearts–are working harder and doing more than they’ve ever done, it may not be enough. They won’t tell you that, though. “I think my colleagues are meeting [these] demands very well,” says Thomas Caitlin, guidance counselor at Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School and vice president of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association.

But are they?

The duties of guidance departments are wide ranging but ill defined. At Brockton High, Ross and Steve Roan are school adjustment counselors, handling kids with the most serious emotional and behavioral problems. They estimate that among the kids clamoring to see them are 80 to 90 who have been raped or sexually molested. One student Ross is working with now, trying to help her focus on school, is living in a cellar with a guy she met on the Internet.

In other school systems, like Newton, there are no adjustment counselors or social workers assigned to regular education students in high school. Guidance counselors field whatever problems come their way–from students grieving over a classmate’s death to those desperate for acceptance at a brand-name college.

Revere’s Gerald Battista:
Never an empty office.

No matter the district, high school guidance isn’t just academics and psychology-lite. It has become the social service arm of the school, as well as a dumping ground for administrative tasks. Guidance offices administer MCAS tests, oversee special education plans, handle college applications, do course scheduling, provide career counseling, help kids find jobs, and make peace between teachers and students. At Braintree High, for example, counselors have helped kids with self-esteem problems overcome their fears of eating in the cafeteria. Counselors also manage family disputes, substance abuse problems, and eating disorders. The school counselor is there when a student is depressed, homeless, abused, or struggling with classes because they’re working 40 hours a week.

The guidance office, in other words, is the place kids go when they’re afraid, or sad, or need someone to talk with. It’s a one-on-one business, but the numbers make that attention increasingly tough to provide. According to the American School Counselor Association, the average ratio in Massachusetts schools is 478 students per counselor, although that figure counts all grade levels. For high school guidance counselors, it’s not unusual to be responsible for 250 students or more.

Ratios vary from school to school, as do student needs. But whether you talk with guidance counselors in Newton or in Brockton, the story they tell is the same: They’re overwhelmed. The question is: Are the kids getting shortchanged?

Guidance without guidelines

Guidance counseling was introduced to American high schools in the early 1900s to help students understand new industrial careers. In the post-Sputnik era, guidance counselors took on the national duty of urging more students to enter science- and math-related fields. But in the 1970s and 1980s, their role broadened from academic guidance to the catchall job of helping students manage their lives. And that task is getting tougher.

Counselors help kids manage their lives.

“Counselors are being asked to do more,” says Richard Wong, executive director of the American School Counselor Association, based in Alexandria, Va. “Because of the family situations and other things happening in society, it is left to the schools to help students develop socially, emotionally, and personally. In the schools, it is up to the school counselors.”

State law requires guidance counselors to have a master’s degree in counseling; school adjustment counselors must have a master’s in social work or counseling. But the degrees–and even the practicum required as part of certification –do not equip them to run a therapy practice or social service agency. Which is what some practically end up doing.

Lisa Hoshmand, director of the division of counseling and psychology at Lesley University in Cambridge, is concerned that guidance departments may be in over their heads. “We cannot be doing more than we can manage,” she says. “There are limits to guidance counselors’ training as well as limits to their roles.”

Counselors say they know where to draw the line‹and when to seek outside help. “You never open doors you can’t close, and you never leave with something that won’t let you sleep at night,” says Braintree High School guidance counselor Carrie Kulick-Clark, president-elect of the South Shore Guidance Association.

But Ross says that when they refer students to other agencies for serious help, including rape counseling, many don’t go. They want help where they’re comfortable, from people they know–at school.

That’s one reason some schools are partnering with mental health and social service agencies to offer services to kids and families within the school building. These “community schools” are catching on, but with only about 4,000 nationwide, they’re still far from common. While some schools have psychologists and social workers available, in others, guidance counselors are pinch-hitting.

“Not only are we trying to deal with the basic traditional roles–getting kids into college, making sure they have the right credits, the right curriculum level–it’s grown into so much more than that. It’s almost like we provide direct family service,” says Tom Sheehan, a guidance counselor at Newton North High School. “I just got off the phone calling a hospital about a family. The father’s in the hospital and the mother isn’t coping with it,” he says. “The kids aren’t being taken care of. Now I’m calling Newton-Wellesley Hospital again to try to get them some services, trying to get a caseworker to help the family manage the situation.”

All in a day’s work.

The talking cure

The deadly rampage at Columbine High School provided a horrifying reminder of the importance of reaching out to troubled youths on the fringes of schoolhouse society. When a potential bomb plot at New Bedford High School was foiled by a student concerned for her teacher’s safety, the point hit home again: Adult relationships matter. Kids may look tough, with their tongue rings and pierced nostrils, but they are aching to be seen and heard.

For a growing number of students, guidance has become the anchor in their day. Revere High School guidance director Gerald Battista says his office is “jammed every day.” Kids, he says, “need a place to come.”

Virginia Norris, 18, a senior at Revere High, is a regular. “Why do I come?” she muses. “I don’t know. Just to chat, I guess.” And yet, “just chatting” is what has moved Norris–who used to skip classes and get Ds on her report card–to higher-level courses, better grades, and her current plans to attend college in pursuit of a career in recreational therapy. “If it wasn’t for the [guidance] staff, I wouldn’t be going to college,” she says.

For some students, guidance departments have become surrogate homes. You see it when you visit. Kids are hanging out, talking, or waiting. Ross says kids have called him “Dad.” Some walk into his office and try to braid his thinning hair while he’s talking on the phone.

“It’s unbelievable how kids want physical contact,” he says. “In a typical day, there are kids who are grabbing you and hugging you.”

Gale Galante, guidance and adjustment counselor at Brockton High, says one student she works with sleeps in a different home nearly every night and has called her “Mom” by mistake. Still, Galante’s role is counselor, not parent, and her focus is on school. “I have to get this little girl to class because she’s failing,” Galante says.

More than half of Brockton High students come from single-parent families, counselors say. In Newton, Sheehan sees more kids from families with two parents, but often they’re both working. Either way, guidance counselors sometimes find themselves picking up the family slack.

Newton South’s Vaunita Schnell:
Snowed in by students’ college applications.

“There are times you end up being like a surrogate,” says Sheehan. “I’ve worked with counselors who are picking kids up, driving them home after a sport.”

If that’s the case, it’s partly the counselor’s own choice; what and how much guidance counselors do is largely up to them. Because they are in the business of helping kids, many allow their job descriptions to expand, sometimes beyond what is reasonable. When that happens, there is a price to be paid, and not only by the counselor.

“The job keeps redefining itself, and the definition is never set in stone,” says Brockton High guidance counselor Donna Neary. “The more that is added on, the more we decide what to let go.”

That decision–what to deal with and what to drop–is a judgment call, sometimes made on the spur of an overscheduled moment. Guidance counselors do what they think best–without the benefit of, well, guidance. As they manage crises, some say, academic and career counseling can get put on the back burner.

Practical applications

The guidance offices at Newton South High School are newly renovated, part of the school’s ongoing facelift, but there is not an uncluttered surface in Vaunita Schnell’s office. Schnell has been a guidance counselor in Newton for 29 years, the last dozen at Newton South, and the last five as head of the department. She seems to keep every piece of paper that has ever crossed her desk. And yet this earthy woman with glasses, bangs, long hair (a mix of blonde and gray), and puttering-around clothes (a black T-shirt with the Apple computer logo, a pair of jeans, worn-out running shoes, and an olive green flannel blazer to dress it up) is firmly rooted in the moment.

And the moments come quickly. There is the mother who keeps showing up in classrooms, harassing her daughter. There is the talented track star who stops by: Can Schnell help him find another job? He has one, but his father wants him to get another. Waiting in the conference room next door is a child psychologist from Children’s Hospital who has come to speak with mourning classmates of a recent Newton South graduate killed a few nights earlier.

Newton may not have the massive social problems of Brockton, but even this school has its share. Very high expectations for college further raise the ante. Schnell is quick to say she feels “blessed to be in Newton, where the students are very motivated and the parents really support education.” But the college application process is making life increasingly difficult–for her, and for parents and students.

Even casual observers of higher education know that college admissions are getting more competitive. As a result of the demographic “echo” boom–children of baby boomers–the number of teenagers nationally is swelling, and more of them than ever are going to college. With competition for spots at selective colleges heating up, students are trying to improve their odds by applying to a greater number of colleges. But that just makes the odds harder to figure, experts say.

“There is no such thing anymore as a sure bet,” says Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, based in Fairfax, Va. “It is extremely frustrating for the counselors, the parents, and, especially, the students.”

In addition, more students are applying for early decision (which requires a binding commitment on the part of students) and early action (which does not). These advance applications have deadlines in the fall, instead of the January 1 deadline common for regular applications. For guidance counselors, all of this means more recommendations to write, more deadlines to meet, and more advice, which kids may very well ignore.

Schnell tries to hold kids to no more than nine colleges. But this year, she says, more than half applied to more. Over the December break, she spent three full days working on student college applications.

Shrewsbury High School guidance director Nick DiPilato suggests students apply to four to six colleges but this year had some applying to as many as 14. “There is more pressure,” says DiPilato. “It’s not just good to go to college, but it matters what college you go to.”

Newton South has a college and career resource center staffed by a counselor. But with 377 seniors, 94 percent of whom will attend a four-year college, the needs for advice, paperwork, and handholding are huge. And there’s so much to know: Wake Forest, says Schnell by way of example, likes to have students call, and tallies how often they do; other colleges hate to have applicants pestering them. When it comes to these institutional idiosyncrasies, it’s tough to keep current.

“I could do a better job if I had time.”

“We think we do a very good job, but I know I could do a better job,” she says. “I could do a better job if I had time to talk with colleges about their programs, what they want. The time that goes is the time to build that information.”

Application assembly line

But if college-application intelligence gathering is getting less attention than Schnell would like at Newton South, at Brockton High guidance counselors say it’s completely falling by the wayside. Neary says that she’s given up making college visits and cultivating relationships with admissions officers. “We’re not able to do that piece,” she says. “And career development–that’s a dream that can’t be done the way it should be done.”

Cathy Leger, one of Neary’s colleagues, says there’s not even time to make sure that the college information one guidance counselor hands out is consistent with information passed out by another. In fact, Leger and others say, it’s almost certainly not.

“The guidance the kids get now reflects a lot of our own personal strategies, our own outlook,” says Brockton High guidance counselor Sandra DeFaria. “The stuff I hand out is based on a workshop I went to.”

When college information is uniform, that may be because it’s delivered en masse. Martin Ammer, president of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association, which represents public, private, and parochial schools, says many schools have taken to doing college and career guidance in groups of 25 to 50 students, “because you can’t give them as much one-on-one attention.” Ammer adds that the need to standardize carries over to the recommendations. There’s no time anymore to tailor written recommendations for each specific college the student is applying to, he says. Instead, “you write a generic recommendation,” and some colleges call back to get more detailed information.

The assembly-line approach to college planning may be more efficient, but it still depends on students coming forward for help. Ammer and Schnell both acknowledge that guidance counselors mostly wait for students to make the first move. It’s harder, they say, to reach out to the kids who don’t have plans or make the effort to get information.

Brockton’s Donna Neary:
“The job keeps redefining itself.”

All this doesn’t sit well with some parents, particularly those in well-heeled communities with high expectations for their kids. Many of these parents complain that the schools leave too much up to them. Families are starting to hire private consultants who charge from $2,300 to more than $5,000 to help students select and apply to colleges. Indeed, this kind of concierge counseling seems to be a growth industry. Sklarow says his 300-member Independent Educational Consultants Association received 1,500 inquiries about membership last year.

Newton parent Debby Bianchi says she didn’t feel her son John, a senior at Newton North High School, got the help he needed applying to colleges. An average student unsure where he wanted to apply, John got lost in the shuffle between top students pushing for help to get into the best schools and needy students craving attention for emotional problems, she says. And John, she adds, is not the only student in this situation.

“You have [counselors] dealing with kids who are having breakdowns, and you have them dealing with kids who are doing well academically, and your kid is maybe flip-flopping around,” she says. “There’s not enough time; there’s not enough people to do it. Lots of kids get left by the wayside.”

Juggling responsibilities–and priorities

It is hard to know how much of what appears to be guidance failure is real and how much is frustration on the part of anxious parents. But one thing is clear: There is a great deal of confusion about what, exactly, a guidance counselor’s job is. Whatever counselors do, it seems, is never enough. That’s not to say guidance counselors shouldn’t be responsible for identifiable tasks, whether it’s meeting with a kid who’s in crisis or writing a student’s college recommendation. The problem is that these counselors’ realm of responsibility is so vast and ill defined that they end up doing, in essence, what they can.

The trade-offs that guidance counselors make every day can be wrenching. “The other day I had a girl come in and tell me she was pregnant,” says Brockton counselor DeFaria. “That was two hours. At that point, the student with the big problem will take priority, and someone with a college application has to wait.” And yet, says DeFaria, application deadlines are real and pressing.

Schnell says guidance counselors “are not here to provide therapy” but to support student academic growth. Still, she says, more troubling emotional issues–such as eating disorders and substance abuse–land on guidance counselors’ laps every day. And, she says, ever since Columbine, counselors have had to be alert to danger signals emanating from kids who might otherwise fade into the cinderblock walls. “In Newton, we’ve had bomb threats, and graffiti has taken on new meaning,” says Schnell. “We used to ignore that stuff.”

“And what they’re ignoring now, today’s guidance counselors don’t even know. “There are a lot of kids I know here, but there are a lot of kids I would like to know better,” says Braintree High’s Kulick-Clark. Sheehan says he can’t know all 180 kids he’s responsible for. “I try to see everybody,” he says. “But there are more like 20 to 40 kids who take up a majority of my time.”

Meet the Author
“It isn’t reasonable to expect guidance counselors to do everything they are expected to do,” says Margot Welch, director of the Collaborative for Integrated School Services and lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She sees the failure to address emotional troubles in an organized, head-on approach as a major problem, not only because of the chaos it portends for guidance, but because of what it means for the school climate. “You bet there is a relationship between this and Columbine. There is a relationship between trouble and missing adults in people’s lives.”

Welch believes schools must be better equipped, supported, and structured to handle student social needs–not only to prevent Columbine-style tragedies, but to let guidance counselors get back to the business of academic advising. After all, parents who went to college themselves may grumble, but they can always step in and help their kids with college searches. But what of families that don’t know how to navigate the college selection and application process? Right now, says Welch, “those kids are getting shortchanged.”