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How Philadelphia School Counselors Balancing COVID-19 Pandemic, Gun Violence Epidemic In City

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- School counselors are serving more and more of an integral role in the lives of students these days, balancing the gravity of a pandemic and a gun violence epidemic in Philadelphia. CBS3 spoke with a counselor and school principal using unconventional methods to reach students.

"Since March 13, 2020, we've lost approximately 11 students to the gun violence in Philadelphia," Tonie Davenport, a counselor at Overbrook High school, said.

For Davenport, the loss of young lives has been immeasurable.

"So what is it like? I'm starting to get a little teary-eyed," Davenport said. "We prepared for graduation last year. One of my top students was murdered last year. He was slated to attend college. We were preparing for graduation, I'm so sorry, and then that night, we were preparing, just finalizing details and we received notification that two additional students were murdered that night."

The historic level of gun violence in 2021 is touching schools around the city and it's prompting schools like Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia to increase their counseling staff, going from just Davenport at one point to adding three additional counselors to support a student body of more than 450 students.

"Our students are facing trauma and it has become normalized for them," Overbook Principal Kahlila Lee said. "And so my school counselors are the individuals who help them unpack what they're feeling."

The school district has at least 200 counselors in school buildings around the city. All tackling, not just the gun violence epidemic that's breaching school walls, but also the gravity of a nearly three-year battle with a pandemic.

"There is a disconnect through all the grief, all the trauma, all the loss because it's not just the loss and grief of Overbrook High School, it's also the community," Davenport said. "They lost relatives to COVID, to gun violence."

Unimaginable loss has led to unprecedented measures to support not just students but their families.

"So yeah, some people might think it's unconventional for a school counselor to actually go do a home visit," Lee said, "but it was a necessity for us because we needed to engage the students, we needed to become their biggest cheerleaders."

Overbrook High School has seen many glimmers of hope because of counseling strategies.

"We have decreased the number of students that have out-of-school suspensions," SOMEONE said. "As we see the number of students that are involved in dual enrollment, she spoke about our graduation rate, all of that is is the contributing work of school counselors."

For Davenport, this work is personal. It's what drives her and other counselors to become a life-changing force.

"It takes a village to raise a child," Davenport said, "and I want to be a part of someone's village. Because I'm not just impacting that student, I am changing the trajectory of their life."

School officials say they're continuing to see success in the holistic model of support they've created with a 100% graduation rate for students who were in the 2019-2020 academic year.

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