'Representation Matters': The Case for More Black Counselors in K-12 Schools

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A high school student with a backpack walks down a long, windowed school hallway.
High school students at Oakland Technical High School on May 1, 2017. (Alison Yin/EdSource)

A growing number of education advocates who have long called on schools to diversify their teaching staffs are urging administrators to extend those efforts 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 adequately prepare them for college or a career, subject them to harsher discipline and fail to address any mental health needs, 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.”

School counselors help students choose classes, provide academic guidance, advise students on college applications and career options and offer mental health support. While counselors of any race or background can offer high-quality advising to any student, Black counselors might be more inclined to take extra time, show a little more patience and establish trust with Black students and their families, she said.

Personal experience

Andrews points to an experience she had while working 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, she said.

“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.”

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She met with the girls weekly to check in on their progress. By the time they became seniors, all 17 had passed the classes needed to attend California’s public universities, Andrews said.

“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,” she said. “If you set the expectations high, the students will respond.”

There’s no data on the racial or ethnic makeup of California’s nearly 10,000 K-12 school counselors. Classroom teachers throughout the state, however, are overwhelmingly white. In the 2018-19 school year, more than 60% of California's public school teachers were white, even though just 22% of students were white, according to an analysis by EdTrust West, a nonprofit education equity organization. Meanwhile, fewer than 4% of teachers — and 5.4% of students — that year were Black.

A 2020 EdTrust study showed that Black students are less likely to be placed in advanced math in middle school or in 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.”

Recruitment challenges

School districts and counselor preparation programs can take steps to diversify the field through mentorship, training and retention programs, said Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors. Graduate schools can host job fairs and make other outreach efforts to recruit Black students to the counseling field, she added, and ensure they get the support they need to graduate and find jobs.

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The Los Angeles Unified School District 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 rates at about 100 schools where many Black students are enrolled. 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. For one, the district does not ask job candidates their race or ethnicity, and among the candidates interviewed, only a small percentage are Black, he said.

“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 noted. And Black students, he said, might be more likely to ask for help from counselors whose culture, experiences and outlook resemble their own.

“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.”

'It's about relatability'

Lyndsey Taylor, a student adviser at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, who’s studying to be a high school counselor, said that being Black helps when she’s counseling Black students, but it’s certainly 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, a high school counselor at a group of Southern California charter schools, said that his experience as a student 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, he said, and throughout his childhood witnessed the differences in their educational experiences.

“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 are only part of what it will take to ensure Black students succeed. 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, he said.

Muhammad Abdul-Qawi, principal of Del Mar High School, a continuation 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 of the need to recruit more Black counselors. “There’s a lot of success stories out there, but there should be a whole lot more.”

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This story originally appeared in EdSource.