The ‘absolutely essential’ role of Black counselors on campus

Oakland Technical High School in Oakland, Calif., Monday, May 1, 2017. Photos by Alison Yin for EdSource

Amid calls for schools to diversify their teaching staffs, some are saying those efforts should extend beyond the classroom — to the counseling office.

The needs of Black students, advocates argue, are too often overlooked by non-Black middle and high school counselors. Black students are more likely to be placed in classes that don’t prepare them for college or a career, subject to harsher discipline and less likely to have their mental health needs  addressed, research shows.

“There’s a subconscious mindset that Black students, students in poverty, cannot learn,” said Lisa Andrews, a director at the California College Guidance Initiative and a counseling professor at the University of La Verne, near Pomona. “To change that, school counseling needs to be transformational and revolutionary.”

Lisa Andrews

School counselors help students choose classes, offer academic guidance, advise students on college applications and career options and offer mental health support. While students of any background can receive high-quality advising from counselors of any race or ethnicity, Black students might connect more with counselors whose experiences mirror their own, Andrews said. Acting as role models or mentors, Black counselors can build strong relationships with students and families and help increase students’ engagement in school, she said.

For an example, she points to an experience she had when she worked as a high school counselor. One day she met a group of young Black girls outside her office who lagged academically and were not focused on four-year college goals. She brought them in and explained they needed to focus more on academics if they wanted to go to college.

“At first, they didn’t respond because I sounded like just another authority figure. But then I told them, listen, I was born in Compton. I have struggled,” Andrews said. “That changed everything. They knew that I understood, and we could start building a trusting relationship.”

She met with the girls weekly and checked in regularly on their progress. She created support groups, individual learning plans and cultural experiences, and served as a mentor. By the time they were seniors, all 17 had passed the classes needed to attend California’s public universities.

“It often takes Black counselors to be on the front lines, aggressively advocating for Black students, pushing the needle forward for them, ensuring they have access to rigorous classes,” Andrews said. “If you set the expectations high, the students will respond.”

There’s no data on the racial or ethnic makeup of California’s 9,900 K-12 school counselors, but teachers in California are overwhelmingly white. More than 60% of teachers in California’s K-12 public schools were white in 2018-19, according to EdTrust West, while fewer than 4% of teachers were Black. The student population was 22% white and 5.4% Black that year.

A 2020 study by EdTrust, an education advocacy and research nonprofit, showed that Black students are less likely to be placed in advanced math in middle school or Advanced Placement classes in high school, and many attend schools where AP classes are not offered at all. Numerous academic studies have shown that Black students are less likely to attend schools with adequate counseling staff or access to mental health services.

“Representation matters. Whether it’s guidance counselors, teachers, mental health providers or leaders, having a workforce that reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of California directly impacts students’ experiences in school — and their educational outcomes,” said Natalie Wheatfall-Lum, EdTrust West’s director of education policy. “Moreover, counselors can either be the gatekeepers or the connectors to college. We need counselors who believe all students can go to college and challenge the biases they may have about who is and isn’t ‘college-bound.’ Unfortunately, too few California students have access to education professionals who look like them and understand their lived experiences.”

Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors, agreed that Black counselors can play an important role in boosting the achievement of Black students.

“If we want to support Black students, hiring school counselors of the same race can build trust with students, as well as their parents,” Whitson said. “It also sends a strong message that Black counselors can be role models, demonstrating how they were able to invest the time and effort to achieve career success.”

School districts and counselor preparation programs can take steps to diversify the field, Whitson said. School districts can mentor and train aspiring counselors who are Black and work to retain those they’ve hired. Graduate schools can host job fairs and make other outreach efforts to recruit Black students to the counseling field, and ensure they get the support they need to graduate and find jobs.

Los Angeles Unified has taken a lead in efforts to hire Black counselors. In February, the district allotted $80 million to fund a Black Student Achievement Plan, which includes several initiatives aimed at improving test scores, attendance and graduation at about 100 schools that have high numbers of Black students. So far, as part of the plan, the district has hired about 60 new counselors, many of whom are Black.

But it’s not an easy task, said Jared DuPree, a senior director at the district. The pool of job applicants does not include many Black candidates, and the district does not ask job candidates their race or ethnicity.

Lyndsey Taylor

“We’re fooling ourselves if we think we can reserve these spots just for Black counselors,” DuPree said. “But you don’t have to be Black to support Black students. Counselors of any race can be effective at this.”

Still, a counselor’s race can be an important factor in establishing trust, at least in the beginning, he said. And Black students might be more likely to ask for help from counselors whose culture, experiences and outlook resemble their own, he said.

“Whether it’s right or wrong, Black families sometimes feel more comfortable with people who look like them,” he said. “It reduces anxiety. They feel, ‘This person can identify with my lived experiences, to the things I value.’ It’s a source of comfort.”

Lyndsey Taylor, a student adviser at Chaffey College who’s studying to be a high school counselor, said that being Black helps when she’s counseling Black students, but it’s not the only factor that leads to a successful counseling relationship. Patience is key, too.

“Just because you’re the same race, it’s not going to be instant. You still have to build trust,” Taylor said. “It’s about relatability, being able to see yourself in the person who’s advising you. ‘Here’s someone who looks like me, and authentically wants me to succeed.’ It takes time for students of color to build that trust, break that barrier.”

Lavernis Martin said that his experience in school inspired him to pursue counseling as a career. While he grew up in a middle-class, predominantly white suburb of Los Angeles, his cousins lived in a mostly Black neighborhood in the city. Throughout his childhood, he witnessed the differences in their educational experiences.

Lavernis Martin

“It was like, ‘Why am I in the fourth grade and learning these things, and you’re in eighth grade and struggling to keep up?’ It was a big eye-opener. Something clearly needed to change,” he said. “My own privilege played a huge role in my options and opportunities. As a counselor, I tell my Black students, you are better than what your environment suggests. You are just as capable as your peers. And I’m on your team.”

Like Taylor, Martin agrees that Black counselors alone are not going to lift achievement levels for Black students. Curriculum that emphasizes the accomplishments of Black people, as well as practices on campus to keep Black students engaged in school, are also crucial steps to ensuring the success of Black students, they said.

Muhammad Abdul-Qawi, principal of a continuation high school in San Gabriel, said he never would have made it to college if his mother hadn’t pushed him. The counselors at his high school in Oklahoma did not encourage Black students academically, he said, and many of his classmates, whose abilities were equal to his, suffered for it.

“This should not be controversial,” Abdul-Qawi said about the need to recruit more Black counselors. “There’s a lot of success stories out there, but there should be a whole lot more.”

Joshua Salazar, who identifies as Black and Latino and works as a student success coach at Cal State San Bernardino, once counseled a Black high school student who had good grades and test scores but was apprehensive about college. He was nervous about leaving home and not sure whether he belonged there, Salazar said.

Joshua Salazar

“I was a first-generation college student, too, so I knew what that felt like. I thought, ‘Oh man, this student has been shut down too many times,’” Salazar said. “I told him, ‘Let’s work on this. Let’s do virtual college tours. Let’s look at some options that will work for you.’ He was a bright student, but there was no one to help him.”

The student ended up enrolling at a local college and thriving.

But the student’s future should not have hinged on a few visits to the counseling office, Salazar said.

“Black and brown counselors are absolutely important. But it shouldn’t come down to us to improve outcomes for students of color,” Salazar said. “It should be a system effort. Every person on campus, no matter who they are, should be focused on this.”

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