Congresswoman Linda Sánchez fights to place more counselors in schools
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By Nadra Nittle - 2/12/2015
LONG BEACH >> For the past eight years Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-Cerritos, has been on a singular mission to get more counselors placed in schools. Just this month, Sánchez introduced a resolution to designate a week in February as National School Counselors Week.
“If you don’t have school counselors, kids are left to flounder on their own. In addition to helping students overcome behaviors like truancy, they really provide critical social services, especially in low income neighborhoods where they’re not as available,” said Sánchez, whose 38th Congressional District includes parts of Long Beach Unified, ABC Unified and other area districts.
Sánchez has previously introduced legislation to increase the amount of counselors in low-performing schools but failed to muster enough support to get it passed.
“I’m trying to find the other 217 members in the House that believe in it enough to make it a priority and support the bill,” said Sánchez, referring to the 218 votes required to pass a bill in the House. “I’m trying to get the issue attention among a clutter of issues that make demands.”
Her latest effort coincides with a new finding from the U.S. Department of Education that ranked California last in the nation in its ratio of students to counselors and the White House holding a formal ceremony to recognize the School Counselor of the Year.
While the American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250-to-1, the ratio is 1,016-to-1 in California. Although Long Beach Unified’s ratio of students to counselors is better than the state’s, at roughly 600-to-1, according to Carol Ortega, the district’s program administrator for K-12 counseling, it greatly exceeds the American School Counselor Association benchmark.
Both Sánchez and Ortega trace the drop in school counselors to the economic downturn that began in late 2007. The school district laid off several counselors during the recession, Ortega said. It has since rehired some of those counselors, and this school year the district employs about 13 more counselors than it did last school year.
But the current number in the district, approximately 119, still feels inadequate, according to Ortega.
“It’s something we’ve dealt with long term, the loss of counselors,” Ortega said. “This is a concern with all of the push to make sure our students are college- and career-ready.”
Ortega notes that LBUSD is one of the rare school districts with counselors in elementary schools in addition to having counselors at all high schools.
At ABC Unified, which includes schools in Cerritos, Artesia and Hawaiian Gardens, federal grants have been used in recent years to beef up the number of counselors and social workers, according to Superintendent Mary Sieu.
“As a result, they’ve been able to add counselors at all of our high schools, and more recently we’ve received one social worker for every high school as well,” she said.
Sieu said that counselors play a key role in preparing students for college and career readiness and addressing their social needs.
“I really think it’s very important that Congresswoman Sánchez is trying to put a spotlight on this very important issue, even though the number of students is still dramatically high,” Sieu said.
ABC Unified employs 23 secondary school counselors at its 10 middle and high schools as well as nine social workers and interns from the University of Southern California.
Danielle Duarte, president-elect of the California Association of School Counselors, said lowering the ratio of counselors to students yields significant benefits.
The head school counselor of Potter Junior High in Fallbrook, Duarte once served as the sole school counselor to 950 students. When she spoke to administrators about the need for another counselor, the school hired another, considerably reducing Duarte’s caseload. She said that previously students reported not feeling connected or safe at school.
When she oversaw the entire student body, Duarte said she mostly reacted to student crises instead of engaging in preventative measures. With another counselor to serve students, the school was able to reduce the amount of failing students to 38 to 9 in one school year, Duarte said.
Ortega wants the public to know that counselors do far more than arrange class schedules for students.
“We’re the only professionals on campus who look at the social and emotional well-being of students and how that relates to their academic performance,” she said. “Sometimes they’re having personal issues that need to be addressed. We identify the barriers and then come up with interventions. We help them dream and aspire to be more.”