Amy Chen, Gomian Konneh, Crystal Arim and Maureen Smith, members of Superintendent William Hite Jr's Student Advisory Board
The gravity of Crystal Arim’s situation struck her a couple weeks ago, when she was attending a college-prep summer program at Columbia University. Crystal, 17, a senior at Kensington Urban Education Academy, was chatting with admissions officers from Harvard and Yale when she realized she was at a competitive disadvantage. “It was just embarrassing to openly say to the director of admissions, ‘Hey, I don’t have a [school guidance] counselor,’” she says. “I felt like I was set up to fail.”
For ambitious students like Crystal, going into their junior and senior years with hopes of attending elite colleges on competitive scholarships, news of the potential delayed start of classes in the Philadelphia School District pending $50 million in needed funding felt like the latest in a string of betrayals by state and local politicians. It also felt like a wake-up call.
There are challenges every year in Philly. But Crystal fears the situation in September — if school opens in September — will only be worse. All of the District’s counselors were laid off in June.
Crystal is on Superintendent William Hite Jr.’s Student Advisory Board, which was created this spring following the student walkouts — and which was back at work again last week. Students on the board are worried about the basics, like school safety and having a counselor around when crisis strikes. But they’re also concerned about how they can attain their dreams of college with insufficient counselors to fill out evaluations and draft recommendations; with a lack of extracurriculars, electives and mentally-gifted classes to put on their applications; and with bloated class sizes and fewer course offerings to ensure they’re prepared.
“We need counselors to get into college,” fellow board member and Masterman senior Gomian Konneh says simply.
Even if schools are each allotted a single counselor in the fall, Crystal says, “Imagine a school with 1,500 students and one counselor. How is your letter of recommendation going to stand out from the other students when that counselor didn’t have time to get to know you?” she says. A late start to school would make matters worse — as would a boycott.
Crystal is in foster care, and says school is the only constant in her life. Now, students feel like they’re walking into turmoil.
Board member Maureen Smith, 16, a junior at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), says she’s bracing herself for a school year filled with unknowns: her schedule, the principal, class sizes and whether her school will stock even basic supplies. (Last year, the CAPA ceramics department didn’t have clay.) “The world isn’t slowing down for us. And it’s really not the time for us to be stopped in our tracks.”
College applications are not, of course, the only reason counselors are critical. This past school year, Konneh says, her school was struck by a tragedy. “We didn’t have enough counselors to properly deal with that situation.” They asked Konneh, as a peer counselor, to step in. She felt uncomfortable and ill-equipped for the task — but she felt she couldn’t say no.
Amy Chen, 16, a junior at Science Leadership Academy and a fourth board member, comes from an immigrant family and plans to be the first to go to college. She says her counselor “is like a second mother. “My mom speaks broken English, and my dad speaks broken English. So I can go to [my counselor] for help and guidance.” Without a counselor, college and scholarship applications will become that much harder to navigate.
Amy and the others have dreams and plans for their lives. But they’ve heard comments about Philly schools being a “cesspool” loud and clear. “How do you take students who are identified as part of a cesspool and inspire them to continue with their education, when you’re giving them that stereotype?” Maureen says.
These students, who are also affiliated variously with the Silenced Students Movement, Youth United for Change and Philadelphia Student Union, see themselves as following in the legacy of civil-rights activists who desegregated schools and fought against disenfranchisement of women. They’re crafting an education-funding platform they plan to share with Hite and politicians who, they hope, will incorporate it into their campaigns. They’re mobilizing against Gov. Tom Corbett, who they see as leading the charge to de-fund Philadelphia schools. And they’re willing to stage more protests and walkouts if need be.
“The scary part is that I believe that they don’t think that we, the students of the Philadelphia School District, are going to succeed. So they take money away from us and they put it into other things. The hardest part about this whole thing is getting it through to these politicians,” Gomian says. “They see us as being inferior to other students — and changing a person’s beliefs is one of the hardest things you can do.”
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