In a campaign to reverse the effects of a 2013 budget crisis that rid Philadelphia School District of all of it school counselors, 1989 College graduate Juliane Dressner returned to her alma mater to air her feature-length documentary on this national issue — and caught the attention of the Philadelphia City Council.
Released in June 2018, "Personal Statement" highlights the story of three New York City high schoolers, from a district with inadequate resources, who adopt the role of college counselors to help their friends and themselves become admitted to college.
More than 600 people, including Dean of Admissions Eric Furda, packed into Zellerbach Theatre to watch the documentary on Jan. 21. City Councilwoman Helen Gym, a Philadelphia school counselor, a Philadelphia Student Youth Organizer, and two of the students highlighted in "Personal Statement" spoke on the need for school counselors.
Audience members also wrote postcards to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, asking for $510 million in additional funding for school counselors.
On Jan. 31, the city council passed a resolution naming the week between Feb. 4 and Feb. 8 of this year "National School Counseling Week" and called on the school district to reach the recommended counselor-student ratio. The resolution cited Dressner's film as evidence of the importance of school counselors.
Dressner said she was initially inspired to work in education activism through her relationship with the Netter Center. As an undergraduate, Dressner worked as a ceramics teacher at the Turner Middle School in West Philadelphia through a class with Ira Harkavy, the founding director of the Netter Center.
“When she called me about the film, I was thrilled to learn that the work she had done in college she now carries forward to this important issue,” Harkavy said.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Day event was organized by Heather Marcus, a counselor at Philadelphia’s prestigious Masterman School and a member in the Philadelphia School Counselors Union, which formed in 2013 following the major layoffs. Marcus saw the film herself and reached out to Dressner to bring the film to Penn's campus.
"The film is about real kids, and you see their personal lives and their issues," Marcus said. "They're students who are first-generation, students of color, low-income families, and instead of just talking about caseloads and numbers, the film shows that when kids don't have the appropriate number of counselors, real people are affected."
The American School Counselor Association recommends a counselor to student ratio of 1 to 250. Currently, the average ratio in Philadelphia is 1 to 392, but as of now many schools have much higher ratios.
The Philadelphia School District regulations currently allow any one counselor to take on a caseload of up to 950 students, a number that Marcus said was too much for school counselors to work effectively.
"We have counselors," she said. "We're here. The district needs to find the money for these kids."
Dressner reflected on the impact that her film had in Philadelphia and said that though the film's subjects are from Brooklyn, their experiences directly relate to the Philadelphia School District's situation. She emphasized the power of film in showcasing young students and their potential.
"We are able to use the film to engage people to care more about this issue and there’s a very simple solution — there’s lots of evidence that school counseling works," Dressner said.