Karen Heller: One counselor, 2,820 students

Posted: September 12, 2013

Let me tell you about Peter Zadro's first day of school as an itinerant guidance counselor.

Honest, that's his title in the continuing drama of the Philadelphia school crisis.

On Monday, Zadro visited three of his schools. "I was just trying to meet the principals," he said. He spent a couple of hours at each location. On Tuesday, he traveled to another school for the first time.

And he isn't done yet.

Zadro, a guidance counselor for 25 years, has been assigned eight schools, at all grade levels, extending from South Philadelphia to Kensington.

His job depends on developing a strong relationship with his students, as he puts it, "to be someone other than their family who believes in their worth and sees their promise. Sometimes it clicks with a kid, which is the most satisfying to me. That's when you can make a difference."

But it is going to be hard to make a difference when Zadro is the sole guidance counselor for 2,820 students.

One counselor, almost 3,000 students.

Add parents, grandparents, teachers, principals, officials from the Department of Human Services and law enforcement, and many others. Zadro, 54, must serve them all. He handles all sorts of issues, including suicide prevention, violence, classroom conflicts, family disruption, sexual identity. He will frequently serve as the first and lone mental health professional to help students, family, and staff.

All 283 school guidance counselors were laid off in June, including Zadro, who worked at Grover Washington. One school with 713 students, all of whom knew him as Mr. Z. In late August, Zadro was among 116 counselors to be recalled. He was named one of 16 itinerant counselors, which sounds like something out of The Grapes of Wrath. He said, "I was not sure what that position means."

So the counselors are making it up as they go along. "I will try to spend as much time in a building as possible in a day," Zadro told me. At Grover Washington, where the school once had four counselors, some days were quiet; others erupted with multiple crises. Now, Zadro must anticipate emergencies. What will he do when he is at one school performing triage and a disaster occurs at another miles away?

"School counselors are really a safety issue. We're not an 'extra' that can be cut out of the budget," said Heather Marcus, a former Masterman guidance counselor. The daughter of two Philadelphia schoolteachers told me: "Counseling is not just my preference, it's my passion. I feel like it was what I was put on this Earth to do."

Nevertheless, Marcus was reassigned to Lawton School after a 13-year absence from the classroom and charged with teaching "character education" to all 823 students. At Masterman, one of Pennsylvania's crown jewels, there is now one counselor - there were once four - to help students with mental health issues, test preparation, college, and financial aid guidance. How can one counselor help hundreds of students succeed, especially when many are the first in their families planning to attend college?

This is the potential collateral damage of massive school cuts, a disaster in the making. "A counselor's attention and expertise can make a substantial difference in a child's life," Marcus said. An itinerant staff suggests "you can only have a mental health crisis on the day the counselor is there."

Students need support, care that extends outside the classroom. If we don't take care of our children now, Pennsylvania will surely pay for them as adults later. The impact extends far beyond the city's borders, into the region and state. A strong School District with healthy, successful students creates a stronger, fiscally robust city that benefits us all.

Zadro remains an optimist. "I'm trying to do what's best with a less-than-ideal situation," he said, which may be the understatement of the year.

He is thinking of wearing a big Z on a button so students will remember who he is and will feel more comfortable approaching him with their issues. "I'm trying to inspire students to believe in themselves," he said, "to have a future, to do the right thing, to value their education."

All 2,820 of them.


Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com. Follow her at @kheller on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.inquirer.com/blinq.

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