Building a pipeline of Black school counselors

This Black History Month, CSBA spotlights programs helping to close opportunity and achievement gaps. This week (Feb. 7–11) also marks National School Counseling Week.

Recognizing the benefits of a diverse teacher workforce, local educational agencies throughout the state have developed career pathways and partnerships with higher education institutions to establish pipelines of well-trained teachers of color.

The advantages of also having a diverse counseling staff, however, often fall by the wayside.

Caroline Lopez-Perry, associate professor and fieldwork coordinator for the California State University, Long Beach school counseling program, said students tend to do better when they’re able to connect with a counselor who understands their cultural worldview.

“It’s the same with teachers, when you see someone who looks like you, who can understand the things you do in a counseling session, that creates a stronger connection between the counselor and the student,” Lopez-Perry said.

Her program has taken several steps to diversify its school counseling cohorts. First, recognizing that some students are likely to be first generation or be one of the first in their family to attend college, demystifying some of the processes of graduate school — including what the application process entails and what things are generally considered when looking for candidates — has proven a necessary first step in clarifying any misconceptions.

Oftentimes students of color think they must have an undergraduate degree in psychology or a background in education to go into school counseling. Other undergraduate majors are not just acceptable, but can be beneficial, Lopez-Perry said.

“Some of these majors are actually really helpful from a school counseling lens,” she said. “If you majored in a particular ethnic studies, you may have a unique understanding of specific student populations that can be helpful as a school counselor.”

In addition to explaining the process of applying to graduate school, helping students understand the role of a school counselor in issues of diversity, social justice and advocating for educational equity is critical. School counselors help students choose classes, offer academic guidance, advise students on college applications and career options and in some cases offer mental health support. Acting as role models or mentors, Black counselors can build strong relationships with students and families and help increase students’ engagement in school, as Black students might connect more with counselors whose experiences mirror their own.

In July of 2020, the American School Counselor Association member data found that 76 percent of members were white compared to 51 percent of school-aged children. While counselors of any racial or ethnic background can connect with and support all students, research has shown that the needs of Black students are 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.

Recently, Black students enrolled in the CSU Long Beach school counseling program held an informational session for Black Student Union undergraduates explaining why they should enter school counseling.

The program also recruits potential candidates from surrounding CSUs and community colleges.

“Our cohorts have been pretty consistently diverse and reflect the local community,” Lopez-Perry said. “We really try to recruit from the surrounding community because you want the school counselors to come from the community that they serve. It’s always a work in progress.”

What can districts do?

School districts can also take steps to diversify the field. For instance, expanding upon current education career pathways in high school to include school counseling could introduce students to programs they’d not considered. Having peer counselor clubs can also be helpful in exposing students to some basic counseling skills about what a counselor does, Lopez-Perry said.

Last year, Los Angeles Unified School 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.

As district look to hire school counselors in an increasingly competitive job market, understanding the role of school counselors and including a school’s commitment to utilizing the school counselors to improve equity in job descriptions could be beneficial. “That’s something a lot of school counselors of color are looking for, is a commitment from schools to equity and allowing counselors to use their skills to build upon that,” Lopez-Perry said.

“Another recommendation for districts who want to be competitive in their recruitment is to offer paid internships to graduate students enrolled in school counseling programs,” she continued. “Most graduate students have to complete their fieldwork hours unpaid, which is a large financial burden. Creating paid internships is one method for recruiting and establishing a pipeline.”