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Are guidance counselors important?

By Theresa Harrington
Wednesday, June 29th, 2011 at 2:10 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district.

Clayton Valley HS grad Nick Milano and Northgate HS grad Bryant Perry said they didn't get much guidance from school administrators to develop four-year academic plans for high school and college.

Clayton Valley HS grad Nick Milano and Northgate HS grad Bryant Perry said they didn't get much guidance from school administrators to develop four-year academic plans for high school and college.

I’m working on a story with Oakland Tribune reporter Katy Murphy about the elimination or reduction of guidance counselor positions statewide due to budget cuts.

The Mt. Diablo school district eliminated guidance counselors many years ago, due to Proposition 13, according to Jonathan Roselin, the district’s recently-appointed assistant director of student services. Instead, principals, vice principals, student services coordinators and college and career advisors have taken on responsibility for helping students figure out their class schedules and plan for college.

In the past few years, some vice principal positions have also been cut and the hours of college and career advisors were reduced. Student Services Coordinators were on a potential cut list for 2011-12, but have so far been spared.

I interviewed Northgate graduate Bryant Perry and Clayton Valley HS graduate Nicholas Milano about this system. As you can hear in this interview, they found they were largely on their own. Help was available to those who sought it out, they said, but their schools didn’t seem to have a systematic, one-on-one approach to guiding students:

Northgate posts an 84-page course planning guide on its website and offers large assembly-type meetings for students and parents. Those with scheduling issues can follow-up with administrators.

A WASC student survey shows that 54 percent of Northgate students developed a four-year plan for high school, compared to 37 percent who didn’t. But less than half of students said the school helped them develop their four-year plan, with 43 percent saying Northgate assisted them, compared to 48 percent who said it didn’t.

Clayton Valley also has class scheduling information on its website at http://cvhs.mdusd.org/. A majority of teachers at the school have signed a petition to convert the campus to a charter. One of their goals is to create a four-week orientation program for incoming freshmen, to help them understand the importance of developing a four-year plan.

Both Bryant and Nicholas told me that high school students commonly believe that Freshman year doesn’t “count.” About a quarter of the district’s freshmen fall behind in credits, according to district data.

The school board is trying to come up with a districtwide strategic plan that would address this problem and guide future budget-cutting decisions.

Do you think the Mt. Diablo school board’s decision to replace guidance counselors with other school administrators is working well?

JULY 16 UPDATE: Due to limited space, the story about counselors that appears in today’s Contra Costa Times does not include some additional information that I gathered about the Mt. Diablo school district (including a portion based on Mike Langley’s comment below).

Here is the Mt. Diablo information in its entirety:

Mt. Diablo Unified eliminated its guidance counselors 20 years ago due to budget cuts, shifting scheduling responsibilities to assistant principals and newly created school services coordinators, who also work with struggling students. But two years ago, the district eliminated three high school vice principals, putting a greater workload on the remaining administrators. This spring, the board issued pink slips to five high school student services coordinators, but ended up saving their positions by making cuts elsewhere.

Some question whether Mt. Diablo’s scaled-back system is effectively meeting students’ needs. Teachers’ union President Mike Langley said it has pushed counseling duties onto others.

“Like every other adjustment to budget cuts, students are expected to make do,” Langley said. “The elimination of a service by the board does not remove the need for that service. It shifts the responsibility elsewhere. In this case, it was shifted to teachers, parents, outside agencies and even to the people needing the service: the students. Counseling became less efficient if it existed at all.”

A recent student survey at Northgate High in Walnut Creek — the district’s top-performing high school — showed less than half of students received help from campus administrators to develop four-year plans. Two friends who graduated in June from district high schools said they felt like they were largely on their own, as they tried to figure out what they needed to do to graduate and go to college.

Northgate graduate Bryant Perry and Clayton Valley High graduate Nicholas Milano said help was available to those who sought it, but their schools didn’t seem to have a systematic, one-on-one approach to guiding students. Both said high school students commonly believe that freshman year doesn’t “count,” so some don’t take school seriously until they’re sophomores.

Milano said he lost out on college financial aid and nearly didn’t graduate from high school because administrators didn’t tell him sooner about requirements. Perry said Northgate’s college and career advisor helped him understand Cal State University requirements, after he happened to stop by her office in the last semester of his senior year.

Research shows that contact with a caring adult greatly improves a high school student’s likelihood to graduate.

For Perry and Milano, the adults on campus who stood out in their minds as having supported and encouraged them the most were their athletic coaches. Milano said a military recruiter also took an interest in him and seemed more willing to spend time talking to him than most school administrators.

Jonathan Roselin, the district’s newly appointed assistant director of student services, said he plans to work with campus administrators to “create a culture of kindness at every school,” which would help students feel they are part of a caring community. Already, he said, most district schools have established “coordinated care teams” of administrators and psychologists or interns who work with troubled or struggling students.

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  • http://ourmdea@ourmdea.org Michael Langley

    Although the passage of Prop 13 in 1978 is, in the opinion of many, the beginning of underfunding of public education in this state, the elimination of guidance counselors as decided by the MDUSD board in the spring of 1991. Non-administrator counselor positions were terminated and the counselors with administrative credentials were redefined as Student Services Coordinators (SSC). This money saving step preserved funding for school sports at the time. The concept of SSC was based on the idea that services within the greater community were available to our students and could be cut at school sites. The SSC would be the facilitator who connected students to existing programs thus saving money by reducing duplication by the district.

    Reality differed from that plan. Classroom teachers saw an unofficial shift in counseling (academic and non-academic) from the front office to the classroom. SSC administrators saw their role evolve into an adjunct assistant principal as counseling dropped in priority. An example of how academic counseling had devolved by the Fall of 1998 can be demonstrated by my experience at College Park High School in the Fall 0f 1998. I was directed to bring my Freshman Social Studies class to a room with two other classes. The SSC distributed packets to the students and spent about a half hour giving instructions to the group of over one hundred students for planning their four years of study. The teachers then took their students back to class. At that point, I chose to toss my lesson plan for the day and help my students try and understand what they must do. This was a poor substitute for one-on-one counseling and was not replicated in every other classroom.

    Like every other adjustment to budget cuts, students are expected to make do. The elimination of a service by the board does not remove the need for that service. It shifts the responsibility elsewhere. In this case, it was shifted to teachers, parents, outside agencies and even to the people needing the service: the students. Counseling became less efficient if it existed at all.

    Look at the results. Barely half of the students at Northgate develop a four year plan. Considering the varying community resources for academic planning available throughout our diverse district, we could hazard an opinion that our other schools are equal or less prepared than this example.

  • CV Parent

    Just to be clear, the Clayton Valley charter petition DOES NOT propose a 4 week summer program for incoming freshmen with the purpose of helping them understand the importance of devoloping a four year plan.

    It DOES propose a one to four week program that will cover many topics, one of which is understanding the system of accumulating credits for graduation. The exact wording from the charter is “Diploma requirements will also be previewed so that students understand the credit-building goal to graduation.” That’s from page 34 of the charter.

    I haven’t yet found any reference in the charter that indicates the teachers have any plans to hire guidance counselors.

    When my children were in 8th grade, Clayton Valley administrators would come to the middle school in the spring to distribute the course sign-up materials to the kids and give them the info they needed to pick their classes. Clayton Valley also held a meeting for the parents where the college and career counselor explained course selection, gave an overview of a four-year plan, graduation requirements, and the a-g requirements for college entrance.

  • School Counselor Educator

    Where to begin here? Number one. The profession is school counseling, so why in the world do you keep calling it by the old, outdated guidance counselor? Ugh! Why are you not interviewing professors of school counselor education, the folks who write, research, and do the heavy lifting in the field? Start with Dr. Trish Hatch, who co-wrote the ASCA National Model at San Diego State. Then try anyone at the Center for School Counseling Outcome Research & Evaluation (CSCORE). Then, go after the folks at the National Center for Transforming School Counseling (NCTSC) at the Education Trust, and finally the folks at the National Office for School Counselor Advocacy (NOSCA) at the College Board. There are so many excellent resources out there to show the value and importance of school counseling programs. Administrators have no ability to take this on and do it effectively. School Counselors have a vital role in schools across the US and around the world. Even in budgetarily challenged times, students need to develop academic, career/college access, and personal/social competencies, and school counselors are the prime persons in the school to make this happen. Why leave it to chance or unqualified persons–our students’ lives hang in the balance.

  • g

    Counselor: Call them what you will but whatever you call them, or yourself, someone is not getting the job done in California. I feel older than dirt, but I remember high school (in another state) very well. Our class graduated 226. If I recall correctly, there was only one person that I remember “dropping out”. She became pregnant in our Sophomore year, home schooled Junior year, and came back in and finished with our class.

    Every class had a “Class Guidance Counselor” that started with us our Freshman year and floated with us for four years, then went back and picked up a new Freshman class. That program seemed to work. That also means that my Class Counselor, Mrs. Marks stayed the course with all of us. She knew many of us better than our parents did.

    Maybe with fewer I-want-to-be-famous-Bureaucrat “A” in D.C. and trickle-down-know-it-all “B” in SAC, and if-there’s-grant-money-to-be-made-I-want-some “C” there would be funds available for a Mrs. Marks, and a Mr. Bell and a Mrs…. You get my drift.

    Bottom line “Why leave it to chance or unqualified persons–our students’ lives hang in the balance.” You are spot on!

  • Theresa Harrington

    SCE: I used the term “guidance counselor” because “school counselors” do not exist in the Mt. Diablo school district. The guidance counseling roles have been assigned to administrators, whose duties include assisting students in developing their academic plans. The schools also have part-time college and career advisors.
    In Walnut Creek, the city and parent clubs also pay for “crisis counselors” for schools in that city, who help students with personal and social problems or issues.
    Some schools also use school psychologists and grad student interns to assist with mental health issues.
    In addition, some students turn to teachers for emotional support.
    But, as you point out, teachers and vice principals may not have the training to adequately fill this role (and it is just one more duty on their already full plates).
    Regarding experts in the field, I will forward your suggestions to Oakland Tribune education reporter Katy Murphy, who researched and wrote the counseling story. I contributed the portion of the story related to the Mt. Diablo school district.