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The Great Divide

‘My guidance counselor didn’t do any of this’: How school counselors’ roles have evolved

Guidance counselor Jacquelyn Indrisano embraced ninth-grader Arianna Troville, 16, outside her office at East Boston High School.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Just before the first school bell chimed, Jacquelyn Indrisano grabbed her cellphone and tapped out an urgent text message to one of her students.

“Get up!” she wrote. “Get up!’’

The teenager was on Indrisano’s “hot list” of East Boston High School students who struggle to rise in time each morning or skip classes altogether. As their guidance counselor, she is both school mother and enforcer to about 260 ninth-graders. She sees students’ pain and problems up close and doles out hugs and advice — and tough love when necessary.

“I have had students who have told me, ‘My mom works too much’ or ‘I don’t want to burden her,’ ” Indrisano said. “And that is why they come to me.”


Indrisano intervenes to save teen friendships. She helps with issues at home. She even keeps bags filled with Dove soap bars, toothpaste, and shampoo to discreetly give to needy students.

A counselor, school mother, and enforcer
Jacquelyn Indrisano, a ninth grade guidance counselor at East Boston High, fields anything from signing work permits to talking students through tough problems. (Shelby Lum/Boston Globe)

“When I was in high school, my guidance counselor did not do any of this,’’ said Indrisano, who’s been at Eastie for four years. “I saw my guidance counselor when I was applying for college.”

Indrisano’s experience underscores the changed nature of guidance counseling at public high schools in Massachusetts and beyond. Once focused largely on helping students prepare for college and careers, counselors have seen their portfolios expand to encompass a host of new responsibilities for students’ social and emotional well-being.

This shift — a response to students having more intense needs — has provided a valuable in-school resource, but at a significant cost: It has pushed college advising to the back burner, according to interviews with three dozen counselors, school officials, researchers, students, and lawmakers.

In wealthier communities with lots of college-educated parents, counselors’ college-advising work may seem less than vital. But in schools with large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, counselors are crucial partners in economic mobility, helping facilitate high-stakes decisions about college and financial aid.


Many students — particularly those who are first in their families to pursue higher education — lack a basic understanding of the college admissions and financial aid processes, or what it takes to succeed on campus, according to a study of roughly 500 Massachusetts high school seniors by Richard Lapan and Timothy Poynton, professors in the University of Massachusetts system who specialize in school counseling and education.

Guidance Counselor Jacquelyn Indrisano (right) and Headmaster Phillip Brangiforte greeted students arriving at East Boston High School.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“One thing is clear to me: Not getting high-quality and in-depth counseling services has negative consequences for these deserving young people,’’ Lapan said.

Kenia Arbaiza, who graduated from Somerville High School in June, applied to 10 colleges but got into just one, the University of Massachusetts Boston. She blamed what she felt was limited guidance from her school counselor on what colleges would be a good fit.

“I did not know anything about college,’’ said Arbaiza, 18. “Both my parents are from El Salvador and neither of them got past the first grade.”

Somerville High School graduate Kenia Arbaiza wished she had more counseling.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Arbaiza said she couldn’t get enough time with her counselor and feels that he did not sufficiently advocate for her — to her teachers and to college admissions officers — when a mental health crisis kept her out of school and caused her grades to dive during her senior year.

Somerville High School officials disputed Arbaiza’s assertions, though they declined to detail the counseling she received, citing privacy. They also said two additional college counselors will be working in the school this year.


“Kenia is entitled to her opinion,’’ her former counselor, Justin LaBerge, said in an interview, noting the pride he’s taken in his work as a school counselor for the past 13 years. “It’s a very difficult job, but it’s rewarding, too. . . . Students who are dealing with significant mental health issues [are] always going to be my main focus. I don’t neglect them for a second.”

Matt Wilkins remembers when he could meet with each of his students at least once or twice a year. The guidance counselor at Lynn English High School no longer has the time. Instead he lurches from crisis to crisis, spread thin by an unrelenting caseload and soaring student demands.

Like an ER doctor, Wilkins operates in triage mode, giving priority to students with the most pressing needs — serious problems at home, severe anxiety, or suicidal thoughts. He’s forced to put off students needing guidance on where to go to college, how to pay for it, and how to begin preparing for careers.

Guidance counselor Matt Wilkins posed for a portrait at Lynn English High School in Lynn.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“Some days I come in thinking I’m going to get to all these kids. I’m going to talk with them about their grades, their extracurricular activities, their future plans,’’ Wilkins said. “And I just have to put those aside because a student crisis has entered my office.”

Wilkins does what he can for his young charges, but he worries about the load he and his fellow counselors will shoulder this fall at Lynn English High, a Gateway City school experiencing a surge in foreign-born students with trauma in their past.


“There are six of us. . . . We were told to expect 2,000 kids,’’ he said. “I don’t know how we are going to do it.”

Every school should have at least one guidance counselor for every 250 students, according to guidelines from the American School Counselor Association. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges recommends one counselor for every 300 students at the high school level, the same ratio outlined in the Boston Teachers Union contract.

The reality is often different. Schools in most states don’t meet the national guidelines, according to the counselor association. For high schools in Massachusetts, the median counselor-to-student ratio of just over 200, not including special-education counselors, does meet the guideline, according to state data. But the numbers vary widely from district to district, with some schools having 300 students per counselor or more.

Guidance Counselor Jacquelyn Indrisano decended the stairs while delivering passes to students she has appointments scheduled with that day at East Boston High School.The Boston Globe/Globe Staff

The true state of school counseling in Massachusetts is difficult to assess. Counselors have to be licensed by the state. But, unlike many other states, Massachusetts has no state oversight on counselors’ caseloads or job requirements.

As a result, there is little uniformity across districts as to how many students counselors are responsible for; what functions counselors perform; what their formal job titles are; and how much time they spend with students. What data do exist are incomplete, because of haphazard reporting to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.


Maine, by contrast, defines what constitutes a comprehensive school counseling program. Utah lays out a “systemic approach” for effective school counseling. At least 30 states, including New Hampshire, Missouri, and Tennessee, have some kind of mandate on school counseling, according to the national counselor association.

Mandy Savitz-Romer, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who specializes in school counseling, said Massachusetts could do much more to elevate and standardize school counseling, including appointing a state-level guidance director and providing meaningful support to local communities.

Ninth-grader Sean Whynegrant (left), 15, was excited when Guidance Counselor Jacquelyn Indrisano (right) told him he had made the honor roll for the first time at East Boston High School.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“I don’t think there has been a real interest in taking on school counseling at the state level,” she said.

State officials acknowledge being largely in the dark about how student access to guidance counseling compares across school districts.

“It’s really hard to untangle in many ways who has got what,’’ said Jeffrey C. Riley, the state’s education commissioner.

Riley, who’s worked as a superintendent, middle school principal, and school adjustment counselor, said high school guidance counselors play a key role in setting students up for postsecondary success. The state’s focus, however, is on giving students the support they need long before they get to college.

“I’m a firm believer in our children needing more folks to help meet their social-emotional needs,’’ Riley said. “I also believe in local control, so we want each individual school district or even school to determine what they think is best for their own community.”

Governor Charlie Baker has pushed for more funding for mental health counseling in the schools, including a proposal for an additional $75 million that is currently tied up in a larger debate on Beacon Hill over the state’s school spending formula. It’s unclear whether any of that money would go toward college advising, however.

Interviews with counselors and students suggest that the recommended counselor-to-student ratios don’t reflect the modern workload, where a relatively small number of students can monopolize a counselor’s time. The more devoted counselors are to students with emotional and social problems — post-traumatic stress, behavioral issues, hunger — the less time they have to help with college readiness, counselors say.

Guidance counselors also report being asked to perform a host of tasks outside of what they consider their core responsibilities. They’re given discipline cases to handle and standardized tests to administer. Molly Brewster, a counselor at Brighton High School, said she has bathroom duty for nearly an hour twice a week.

“In those 53 minutes,” she said, “I could be meeting with a student, talking with them about colleges, telling them about scholarships, or reviewing their college applications.’’

“I work hard to advocate for these students,’’ Brewster added. “But kids do fall through the cracks.”

Without more state oversight, there’s little accountability for ensuring the best counseling for Massachusetts students, said Robert Bardwell, executive director of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association.

“All you have to do is to look at the number of kids who drop out and the number of students who do not persist in college to see there is something wrong with the system,” said Bardwell, who is also director of school counseling at Monson High School.

Several years ago, Savitz-Romer, the Harvard professor, took a close look at guidance counseling in Boston’s public schools, with the district’s blessing. Her final report, in 2015, revealed a piecemeal system with “no set of standards [or] guidelines across schools,” no unifying approach to data collection, and no clear-cut rules on how schools should use outside partners to advise students.

Savitz-Romer’s report urged the incoming superintendent at the time, Tommy Chang, to do something. But not much happened.

“They have not made it a priority,’’ said Savitz-Romer, author of the recent book “Fulfilling the Promise: Reimagining School Counseling to Advance Student Success.”

Indeed, many Boston high school graduates whom the Globe interviewed for its Valedictorians Project, published in January, reported being clueless about the financial, cultural, and academic aspects of college when they arrived on their respective campuses. Some later floundered or dropped out, having made ill-advised college choices, and amassed major debt.

Boston school officials say there are 117 licensed counselors doing guidance work with the city’s 16,000 high school students and that at least another 84 people working for outside nonprofits and colleges help students with college advising. The nonprofits’ role is key, Savitz-Romer said, though she cautioned that without better coordination, “we are doing an injustice to students.”

Guidance Counselor Jacquelyn Indrisano has a closed door meeting with a student at East Boston High School.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

In the spring, amid criticism that Boston was failing to prepare students for college, Laura Perille, then the city’s interim superintendent, resurrected the idea of boosting the district’s guidance programs. She asked Savitz-Romer to come back and help facilitate a task force.

In a large room at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School, with the evening sun still bright, Savitz-Romer asked a group of about 10 educators to write down their wish list for services all Boston students should receive from the school counselors. They scribbled “career exploration,’’ “internships,’’ “financial aid,’’ and “college advising” on giant papers taped to a wall.

One task force member, Geoffrey Walker, the head of school at Fenway High School, lingered on “college advising,” a key role he said the district cannot fill without outside organizations. Fenway, which has one part-time college adviser on staff and roughly 375 students, relies on a full-time college adviser from a local organization as well as assistance from other nonprofits. (Fenway also has three student-support coordinators who are licensed in school counseling or social work, he said.)

Walker said he would love to make college advising a full-time staff position, but he has competing budget constraints, such as whether to hire a classroom teacher instead.

“When your budget is tight, you have to choose between two things that our kids need,’’ he said.

In June, the Boston task force released its findings, which new Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said would provide “useful insight” to the district. Among the recommendations: a clear vision on school counseling from the district; professional development specifically for school counselors; a single job description for anyone in the school counselor role; and a “lead counselor” at every school.

What is consistent across schools in Boston and beyond is a feeling of frustration among counselors that they can’t reach all their students, especially those needing help with college decisions.

“I often find myself having really short meetings with kids, because they catch me as I am running to the bathroom,” said one Boston counselor, who wasn’t authorized to speak to the media and asked to remain anonymous. “I always joke around and say I do my best work in the hallway.”

In Lynn, Eva Muraga, a native of Kenya who graduated from Lynn English High School in May, said she was lucky to connect early in high school with La Vida Scholars, a nonprofit that prepares high-achieving, low-income students for college. But she felt the school’s own guidance counseling program prioritized students who either had top grades or were reeling at the bottom.

“I felt I was working all by myself,” said Muraga, a first-generation college student at St. John’s University in New York, whose high school grades were somewhere in the middle. “It’s unfair for students to have to advocate for themselves.”

Lynn English High has more than 1,800 students and six guidance counselors, in a city where fewer than 20 percent of residents 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree.

By comparison, Newton North High School has more than a dozen counselors serving over 2,100 students, in a city where 77 percent of residents over 25 have a bachelor’s degree.

“It’s like, how can we be as successful as them when we don’t have the same support personnel?’’ said Wilkins, of Lynn English, whose neatly organized desk is adorned with affirming messages such as, “Be the change you wish to see in this world.’’

“The system is focused on teachers in classrooms,” said state Representative Daniel Cahill, Democrat of Lynn, who proposed a bill to add an additional counselor in every school in Lynn and other Gateway cities. “But not enough of it is focused on supports like guidance counseling.”

The bill remains in the Legislature.

At East Boston High, a teenage girl tried to pass Indrisano in the hallway. Indrisano stopped her and leaned in close, forehead to forehead.

“Come see me,’’ she said. “Your dad is very worried about you.”

At Eastie, an open-enrollment school where 80 percent of students are English language learners, many have known hardship. Headmaster Phillip R. Brangiforte established Eastie’s Freshman Academy six years ago to keep the school’s youngest students on track.

“The [school counseling] job has changed a lot,” said Brangiforte, who lives and breathes Eastie High; 45 members of his family, including four of his five children, have gone here. “Students today have a lot of trauma. And there is no cure for trauma.”

Eastie’s half-dozen school counselors spend 60 percent of their time helping students with personal and emotional problems, school officials estimate. At least five other people from outside groups — including nonprofits — provide full-time academic, career, and college-counseling support, the school department said.

Counselor Jacquelyn Indrisano tried to catch a co-worker’s attention when she arrived for work at 6:15 a.m. at East Boston High School.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

One afternoon this spring, Indrisano, whose formal job title is school development counselor, was coaxing 16-year-old Arianna Troville back from the brink of ending a cherished friendship. Indrisano gently urged her to reconsider the breakup and the girl eventually relented.

At another point in the day, 15-year-old Sean Whynegrant was trying hard to explain away his repeated tardiness. (His alarm didn’t go off.) Indrisano checked her computer to see whether Whynegrant was in academic jeopardy. A smile filled her face.

“Do you know you made the honor roll?’’ she asked.

Whynegrant closed his eyes in sweet disbelief.

“My first time this year,’’ he said.

“I’m very proud of you,’’ Indrisano said, beaming.

Toward the end of the day, Indrisano was meeting behind closed doors with a parent who made an impromptu visit, alleging that the school had not been notifying her about her daughter’s absenteeism. (The school had been sending the notices, but the mother, who works second shift, hadn’t been getting them.)

Voices clashed inside the room, before Indrisano emerged, looking flushed. On such days, the 38-year-old mother of two young girls feels like curling up and going to sleep. But she presses on.

During the Globe’s visit to the school, she said she did not often get overwhelmed with her caseload. Help and support from other staff members are only a text or call away. But two days later, she acknowledged the toll.

“It’s a lot,’’ she said. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t.”

Todd Wallack of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.