Beverly Wallace, a guidance counselor at MacFarland Junior High School in Northwest Washington, had planned to spend last week doing the routine task of adjusting class schedules. But time and time again her attentions were drawn to a 14-year-old pupil whose mother died recently and who needed to find a new home.
The pupil, whom Wallace described as distraught and emotionally drained from losing her only parent, relied on the counselor for hope, direction and a sense of security. "My main concern was to get her stabilized, so she can do well in school. In counseling you have to deal with the total child, the total being," said Wallace, who is helping the girl's grandmother obtain legal custody of the child.
As a counselor for four hundred 12- to 15-year-olds at MacFarland, Wallace spends her days advising pupils, parents and administrators on everything from getting involved in various school programs to keeping a teen-aged mother in school and helping pupils succeed at algebra.
Wallace is one of 288 guidance counselors who serve 88,000 pupils in the city's elementary, junior high and senior high schools.
The overall ratio of pupils to counselors is about 300 to 1. At some schools, the ratio is higher than 500 to 1.
School officials say the small number of counselors has become one of the most serious problems facing the city school administration. Twenty years ago, when most children came from two-parent families, counselors were generally assigned to senior high schools and mainly advised teen-agers on how to get into college.
Occasionally they faced a pregnant teen-ager or one picked up by police for truancy.
Today, with the increasing number of families headed by working women, counselors serve pupils of a wide range of ages and are called on to deal with serious problems on a regular basis.
"Children are under stressful situations," said Wallace, who won an award for outstanding service from school officials last year. "They are worried about not achieving, not having jobs, family problems. Invariably, in the morning, there is somebody waiting to see me with a problem. I do some individual counseling, but I try to do more group counseling because I am the only counselor here. So, I've got to organize my time."
Pupils have complained that counselors are so busy and overworked that often they are unavailable.
D.C. School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie said in a recent report on goals for the new school year that counselors "continue to be overwhelmed by the high student-counselor ratios and increasing student demands . . . . "
"Most of the counselors were trained in the '60s and '70s [when the] focus was directed towards educational planning . . . college selection, career preparation and related activities," McKenzie reported.
She described the problems confronting counselors as "serious" and said most counselors are not adequately prepared to deal with the kind of social problems that pupils take to the classroom these days.
"In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of referrals and the types of crises of students -- for instance, suicide attempts, child abuse cases and depression," said Nancy Ware, a psychologist for the school system. She added, "Younger students are coming to us for help with these problems. We don't have much time for intervention. We have to respond after problems occur."
Ware, who works closely with counselors, said more counselors are needed to cope with problems like drug abuse, unemployment, alcoholism and inadequate housing, which many pupils face at home.
"Counselors work very, very hard, but there's a crisis situation going on," Ware said. "There's just so much to do. There are a lot of kids out there that need a lot of help. We're seeing a growing need as far as mental health issues."
Several counselors, who asked not to be identified, agreed with Ware. "Some students are simply ignored because we don't have the time to look into their problems with any depth," said a counselor at a high school in Northeast. "We have to fix and mend and keep going. If we take too much time on a few children, then the others won't get any attention at all," she said.
Wallace, who has been with the school system for 13 years, said she gets plenty of practice solving unexpected problems at MacFarland. Each morning when she arrives, there is at least one pupil waiting outside her office to talk to her about a family crisis or about academic or social problems. Last year she recorded about 20 such visits a day. She described her job as stimulating but draining.
We can't always resolve the problem immediately," she said. "But we do try to help the child maintain a high degree of self-esteem. Things have a way of working themselves out if you maintain a positive attitude about the situation. The main thing is making a child feel wanted and that there's somebody there to help. That somebody is me, the counselor."
The average age of the counselors is about 55, so "we need to train a new breed of counselors," said Dorothy Jenkins, supervising director of the school system's guidance and counseling branch. She added that the schools have only five male counselors and wish to increase this number because of concern that many male pupils are not being reached.
Jenkins said she is expanding counseling services by recruiting professionals from a variety of fields to visit schools and talk to pupils about careers. In addition, she said, counselors are being evaluated by principals to determine what their strengths and weaknesses are.
"Kids want help with courses. They need help staying in school, and test-taking skills. They need to be counseled so they know how to stay out of trouble. Some of them have the blues. They have personal and emotional problems which get in the way of their success," Jenkins said.
Board of Education President R. David Hall said he is "committed to improving the counseling situation soon. I'd like to see the ratio of counselors to students to come down to 200 to 1."
Hall cited his concern that counselors do not have enough time to work with on pupils' academic performance and help point them toward jobs or college after high school.
Eurah Collins, principal at Young Elementary School at 26th Street and Benning Road NE, simply offered a plea:
"I do need another counselor -- desperately. I have one counselor and 557 students. We have lots of children with stress. Students are on edge, and sometimes they are just angry. We don't know what the cause of it is or where it's coming from. These problems are not easy to solve."