On Wednesday, March 14, the Boston School Committee met again to hear public testimony on the budget for the next school year. E4E-Boston teacher members, Matt Clark and Katie Mallon, testified with E4E-Boston Executive Director Brandy Fluker Oakley to respond to questions posed by the School Committee at the previous hearing and to advocate for an increase in funding for guidance counselors and school psychologists. Below is video of them testifying along with the written testimony that was submitted to the School Committee.
West Roxbury Academy
Thank you, members of the School Committee and Dr. Chang for taking the time to hear my testimony. My name is Matt Clark, I am an 11th and 12th grade humanities teacher at West Roxbury Academy and have worked in the Boston Public Schools for six years. I am also a member of Educators for Excellence - a teacher-led organization based in six chapters across the country that works to elevate teacher voice in policy. This fall, I served on a Teacher Action Team with E4E which advocated for trauma informed schools. As you consider the budget for the upcoming school year, I strongly urge you to include funding for school counselors and psychologists.
Throughout my time in the Boston Public Schools, I have seen our guidance counselors and psychologists do incredible work. I have seen them assist students dealing with trauma, help students get internships, and guide students through the college application process. These professionals are essential to a strong school and offer critical services that teachers alone cannot provide.
I recall once making a routine call home to the family of a student, whom I will call Catherine, who had been absent several times that quarter. Catherine’s family was unaware that she was missing school. As a result, I reached out to the school guidance counselor and we scheduled a meeting with the student. In the meeting, Catherine revealed that she had experienced serious traumatic events as a child and as a young adult. The emotional pain she was experiencing was keeping her from attending school.
The meeting took several hours because of the severity of the issues and our school psychologist was called in to assist. The school psychologist ensured that Catherine would be safe in the immediate future and created a long term plan for her success. Immediately after this meeting, we observed a drastic improvement in Catherine’s attendance and academic performance. But it took the collective intervention of a teacher, a guidance counselor, and the school psychologist - as well as Catherine’s family.
After this incident, I went to thank our guidance counselor for her help with Catherine and all of our other students, she responded by nonchalantly telling me that she handles situations like this all of the time. While our staff does an amazing job with the students that we are able to identify as needing help, I can’t help but wonder how many go unnoticed and unsupported - especially in schools that do not have adequate mental health support staff. Currently Boston Public Schools has a ratio of 1,272 students to one guidance counselor. This is well above the American Counselors Association’s recommended ratio of 250 to one. This lack of personnel leaves many students in danger of falling through the cracks.
Our guidance counselors are essential to many students who are not dealing with trauma. They connect our students with outside organizations, showing them the amazing opportunities that our city has to offer. Our counselors place students at internships in private businesses, prestigious universities, and government agencies within Boston. At West Roxbury Academy, thanks to our guidance department, students are able to shadow agents at the Securities and Exchange Commission. These experiences open student’s eyes to the possibilities that their future holds.
The college application process can seem incredibly daunting to many of our students. Our counselors help students understand the Common Application, FAFSA forms, and College Board exams. They help students get good letters of recommendation by giving them “brag sheets,” where students highlight all of their accomplishments for their teachers to write about.
As you weigh the many needs that our schools have, I strongly urge you to think about Catherine and the many students like her, who need guidance and support. The work that our guidance counselors and school psychologists do everyday for our students is incredibly impactful and allows our students to reach their full potential as learners.
Good evening School Committee Members and Dr. Chang, my name is Katie Mallon and I am a teacher at the Tobin and member of Educators for Excellence. I am here to discuss the need for an increased number of guidance counselors and school psychologists. It is essential that Boston Public Schools make this a priority in the budget for next school year.
While I am grateful for outside partners such as Arbor Counseling, Home for Little Wanderers, Whittier Street, Greater Services of Roxbury and more who do this invaluable work, they are unable to provide the consistency, stability, and experience that BPS-employed professionals can.
This need is urgent. Just last week, I had to have a student, who I will call Lucas, removed from my classroom after he continued to disrupt the lesson. An administrator came to walk Lucas to the back room of our main office, the room where we store extra uniforms, so that he could regain his composure. I am very lucky to have a co-teacher, which allowed me to go upstairs and find Lucas. I asked him, “What’s going on? Why have you been yelling at your teachers so much in the last few weeks?”
Now that he had calmed down, Lucas was able to share with me that he recently learned his biological father was in prison and how his beloved older brother just moved away. He couldn’t stop thinking about these profoundly upsetting things. As Lucas shared all of this information with me, I felt utterly unprepared. Having no formal training in counseling adolescents experiencing trauma, I didn’t know how to begin to to get him to a place where he would be ready to go back to class; I didn’t know what supports to offer him.
In our school, we have three counselors from some of the counseling services I mentioned above, a school psychologist, and a special education coordinator. But all have to split their time with at least one other school, which has left no one in the entire building with the formal training this student needed. My student is one of eighteen in his class—among the other seventeen, there is one student just granted an IEP for emotional disorders, another currently exploring a diagnosis of autism, two recent immigrant students, four in foster care, and multiple others who have experienced major traumatic life events. All that in just one third-grade class in just one hall of just my one school.
In my career, I have worked at three schools, two of which served students in grades K-8. Only one had a single, full-time guidance counselor on staff. I could only tell you the name of the school psychologist at one.
The story of my student is not a rare occurrence. More and more it is becoming the norm. That is why I strongly urge you to provide sufficient funding that will allow our schools to increase the number of guidance counselors and school psychologists serving our students. All students deserve to receive the help they need so that they can get back to class and get back to learning. To make this happen, schools need qualified professionals dedicated to helping our students live happy and healthy lives.
Brandy Fluker Oakley
Executive Director of E4E-Boston
Good Evening School Committee Members and Superintendent Chang, my name is Brandy Fluker Oakley and I am the Executive Director of Educators for Excellence-Boston, a teacher-led organization. I stood in front of you at last week’s hearing and shared the need for more funding for guidance counselors, social workers, and school psychologists in BPS, as did many others. I heard you share concerns about the cost of rectifying this issue as well as questions about how this issue impacts student learning. I am here today to respond to those concerns.
The cost estimates I am about to share are estimates. We used figures that were easily accessible to the public, including data from the BPS website and reporting from the Boston Herald. In calculating these costs, we used an estimate of the average district salary for school psychologists and guidance counselors. Our estimates do not include the cost of benefits.
In order to meet the ratio recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists of one psychologist per 700 students, BPS would need to hire 15 more psychologists, which would roughly cost $1.3 million ($1.7 million with benefits estimate of 30 percent) or $30.35/student.
As I mentioned last week, the American Counseling Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students. We have one counselor for every 1,272 students. This number in itself is deeply concerning, however what it does not capture is the disparity of access to counselors across our district. There are in fact schools that are meeting the recommended ratio, but too often that increased support does not correlate with increased need based on mental health data. We need to collect this data in order to make informed decisions for our students.
To meet the recommended ratio for counselors, BPS would need to hire 180 more counselors and it would roughly cost $13.3 million ($17.3 million with benefits estimate of 30 percent). Currently, 21 schools in BPS have at least one counselor. Twenty of the 43 existing full-time counselors are employed at just three of our schools: my alma mater Boston Latin, and Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant - our exam schools. The cost to add one counselor for every school building that currently is without a counselor would be around $7.7 million ($10.1 million with benefits estimate of 30 percent). When we start to look at the school-level enrollment and student need, we may find that some schools require more or fewer counselors.
This is an investment worth making and is directly linked to the second question you raised - how would increased mental health support affect learning time? Without a doubt, trauma is a threat to learning. Memory, organizational skills, and comprehension are all disrupted by the physical impact of trauma on the brain. Beyond this, the stress associated with trauma causes students to feel unsafe and triggers fight-or-flight responses at seemingly ordinary occurrences. In these instances, schools often respond with disciplinary measures, removing students from class and addressing the behavior with consequences instead of addressing the underlying cause with support.
This is if the student comes to schools at all. The National Childhood Traumatic Stress Network notes that students in the older grades who are not receiving emotional and mental health support are far more likely to skip school, contributing to chronic absenteeism. In Boston, 26 percent of students are chronically absent, nearly double the statewide average. These students are more likely to fail, repeat a grade, and, eventually, drop out. When we weigh the lost class time due to regular pull-out sessions with a counselor against the loss of learning that results when students are chronically absent due to a lack of support, the choice is clear.
After me you will hear from two teachers who will share their first hand experiences supporting their students impacted by trauma. Unfortunately, these stories are all too common. That is why we are asking you to prioritize students’ mental health by investing in the support staff that will ensure that our students are spending their time in the classroom learning and thriving. We strongly urge you to hire additional psychologists to meet the recommended ratio, collect data on student mental health needs to determine where to place counselors, and hire counselors for those schools who do not currently have any.
Thank you for your time.