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No shortcuts in counseling

Part IV in a series exploring budget cuts' effects on schools

Posted: April 22, 2012 1:30 a.m.
Updated: April 22, 2012 1:30 a.m.

Karla Arriaran-Rodiguez, who works as a counselor at four different Hart district sites, leads discussion at an outreach group for English-language learning parents at Hart High.

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It’s STAR testing time, and Valencia High School counselor Kathy Stroh seizes the opportunity to meet with larger groups of students than she can during regular class schedules.

The weeklong period of standardized testing slows the hustle and bustle of packed counseling centers throughout the William S. Hart Union High School District as regular academic programming goes on pause.

“The real challenge for counselors has become finding time to make face-to-face contact with students,” Stroh said of state budget cuts’ impact on her field.

Addressing basic requirements en masse is one way the district has tried to be more efficient with counselors’ time as their workload increases.

“Instead of meeting with every class, we’re giving group presentations,” Stroh said. “You spend all the rest of the time trying to meet the student.”

A tougher road
California’s budget crisis has led to some $20 billion in cuts to  state public education over the past five years.

One effect has been shrinking college opportunities for students as state universities cut enrollments.

“Kids are needing to do more and more, and with the way our economy is, it’s so much harder to get into college,” said Stroh, a former Saugus High School teacher who has more than 20 years of experience at the Santa Clarita Valley’s only high school district.

“In the past, if you had a 3.6 (grade point average), I could guarantee there would be a spot somewhere for you. If you have a 3.7 now, there might not be a place that can take you.”

Counselors receive automated reports alerting them to poor classroom performances by the students assigned to them.

While the reports put counselors on notice of behavior that could lead to a failing grade, there is no mechanism for alerting them if students’ slipping performances could knock them out of the running for college admission.

Counselors’ one-on-one time with students, which has become increasingly sparse, is crucial for students as they set out on their individual academic paths, said Principal Sal Frias of Golden Valley High School.

“If a student wants to pursue a path of college, career tech, military or other, the courses our students are required to take vary,” Frias explained. “We need to make sure our plan is in place for the student’s goals to be realized.”

But counselors are facing more and more challenges.

“We have a higher counselor-to-student ratio now,” Frias said. “This means that each counselor has a caseload of more students. We also have less workdays. In short, we have less time to see and work with more students.”

A numbers game
The Hart district has 58 counselors to help approximately 23,000 students — a ratio of approximately 400-to-1, according to district spokeswoman Gail Pinsker.

A union contract stipulates that a school is allotted a counselor for every 450 students, and the school is required to hire an additional counselor if the remainder of that number of students comes out to at least 226, explained Bob Vincent, principal of West Ranch High School.

Since the public school funding crisis began, districts statewide have been forced to divert counseling funds elsewhere to save jobs.

Most recently, the Hart district eliminated a career adviser position, and the number of students each counselor serves has steadily risen.

“You want to keep things sensible,” Stroh said. “It’s really just a numbers game, but we have gone up in the last few years,” she said. “Where (Valencia) used to have 375 (students per counselor), now we’re at 450, which is our contractual limit,” noting the ratio can differ from school to school.

Unfilled positions
Counselor Karla Arriaran-Rodriguez has seen her job change radically in the past few years.

She was a full-time counselor at Hart High School last year, but then she received a pink-slip notification, meaning her position might be eliminated.

“It said, ‘returning — location to be determined,’” she said.

It wasn’t unfamiliar territory to the 16-year education veteran with a doctorate in the field from University of California, Santa Barbara.

She came to the Hart district after she was laid off from the Moorpark Unified School District due to budget cuts in 2009.

This year, Arriaran-Rodriguez works at four different schools within the Hart district: Sequoia Charter School; Hart at Home for home-schooling students assisted by the charter; and Golden Valley and Hart high schools.

“It’s challenging,” she said. “I’m at a different site every day.”

In addition to counseling students at all four schools, Arriaran-Rodriguez also runs various career-advisement events, student-peer support groups, the bilingual Padres Unidos program and various other academic events hosted by all four schools.

It can create a real time crunch during periods when there tend to be more students in the counseling center, such as December registration and right around report-card time.

Counseling cuts have changed the landscape at every school and brought a new focus and urgency to the job, Stroh said.

“You have to work as a team,” Stroh said. “And it’s not that it didn’t used to be that way, but now it’s more of a concerted effort.”


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