Philly schools counselors continue to help students remotely

John Barry Elementary third-grader Emma Pressley, left, holds a Chromebook with her mother Shayvon Pressley outside the Education Center on Broad Street on Thursday. — Tribune Photo/Abdul R. Sulayman (Tribune Photo/Abdul R. Sulayman)

By Chanel Hill

PHILADELPHIA — When Central High School senior Mariame Sissuku heard that her school would be closed for the remainder of the year due to the coronavirus, she began to worry about getting ready for college.

“Visiting colleges became a huge concern for me because I really wanted to visit the colleges that I got into,” Mariame said. “I’ll be going to Barnard College in New York, so I also had concerns about whether the college will be opening on time in the fall and what will the financial part of that now look like.”

Mariame, who is also the president of her school’s mental health club, has been talking to school counselor Christine Soda every day since schools closed in March.

“I set up frequent appointments with Dr. Soda,” Mariame said. “She’s been helping me with the college process. She’s also helped me reach out to fellow students who were having hard times dealing with the pandemic.”

Soda is the lead counselor at Central. She is one out of 340 counselors across the School District of Philadelphia who are currently helping students remotely.

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“I have seniors who are still working at their jobs, students are missing their friends, and some students are rethinking their college decision in terms of where they want to go to school,” said Amy Miller, a counselor at Constitution High School. “Financial aid is also another area where students have a lot of questions and concerns. The pandemic has created a new experience for all of us, but we’re embracing it.”

Soda said the pandemic has really “fueled [her] purpose.”

“It feels good to help our students,” Soda said. “The counselors at Central recognize the importance of continuing the work that we started in terms of our programming.”

Soda said Central has two counselors who are focused on getting students ready for college and others who are focused on mental and behavioral health.

“That’s still a lot of kids to connect with virtually, but we’re doing the best that we can with what we have,” Soda said.

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The counselors have been using such applications as Google Meets, Google Hangouts and Google Voice to talk with students while schools are closed.

They also have created documents about mental health, and college and career preparation, and posted them on Google Classroom pages.

Miller has hosted Google meetings with representatives from colleges and universities like Bloomsburg, East Stroudsburg, Kutztown, Villanova and West Chester, so students can learn more about the schools. She’s planning to have an admissions counselor from Temple University meet with students virtually.

Miller has encouraged the staff at Constitution to wear their college gear online to help get students excited about their decisions.

She has been advocating with colleges and universities to waive their deposit requirements for students who might not have the funds available, and Facetiming with parents to help them fill out forms for FAFSA and other student loan applications.

The counselors also plan to hold workshops on Philadelphia Futures and mindfulness, Miller said.

“I’ve just been trying to provide the students with as much information as possible,” Miller said.

Constitution High senior Zyra Harris is working with Miller to decide which HBCU she will attend in the fall.

“I want to go to college far away, so Ms. Miller has been helping me decide which college is the perfect fit for me,” said Zyra, who wants to study computer science. “I’m now deciding between Morgan State University and Xavier [University of Louisiana].”

Working with Miller virtually has helped alleviate some of Zyra’s concerns about college.

“I know she will provide me with the best information and opportunities when it comes to working online, financial aid, and my college planning,” Zyra said. “She’s been amazing through this whole process.”

Chanel Hill is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared