Marino Parada arrives in his cluttered office at 7:30 a.m. with one goal in mind: to get a stack of "fail notices" out to parents whose kids are flunking.
Within minutes, things go haywire for the guidance counselor at Jefferson High in South Los Angeles.
A girl appears unannounced to confide a secret--she's ditching school to get stoned at the park. A boy rants about a teacher who kicked him out of class. Two seniors stop by seeking letters of recommendation. Then Parada gets wind of a student walkout to protest a ban on clothes adorned with pictures of marijuana, so he skips lunch to patrol the cafeteria for protesters.
"I really need a break," he says after five nonstop hours, the fail notices sitting untouched on his desk.
Parada is overwhelmed--and he's not the only one. With enrollments escalating, schools nationwide face a severe shortage of counselors. And nowhere is the problem more severe than in California.
Here, from kindergarten through 12th grade, there is one counselor for every 979 students, the worst rate in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Some elementary school counselors serve 3,000 students or more.
Leading counseling and school health organizations recommend caseloads of no more than 250, a threshold that is especially important in secondary schools, where adolescence and academics often collide.
Counselors are supposed to serve as a safety net for students. Instead, they often perform triage, like nurses in an emergency room.
"By the time the day is over, I forget what I started," Parada says, rubbing his bloodshot eyes after an 11-hour stretch.
Among the first to be trimmed when schools cut costs, counselors are also the first called upon to prevent violence and soothe students in its wake.
It is often when the shooting is over--after the deaths at Columbine High School in Colorado or at Santana and Granite Hills high schools near San Diego--that lawmakers and educators howl for counseling services.
After the San Diego County shootings in March, California's schools chief, Delaine Eastin, made a point of seeking $300 million over five years to cut the state's counselor ratio in half. The first installment--$60 million next year--has stalled in the Legislature.
But Parada believes the investment is long overdue. "I wonder how many of those school shootings could have been avoided because someone was able to detect that anger," he says.
The counselor shortage hits hardest on crowded campuses like Jefferson, a year-round school about two miles east of USC.
Many of Jefferson's 3,300 students come from families who survive on no more than $15,000 a year and who speak Spanish at the dinner table. In their neighborhood, taggers are bold enough to spray graffiti inside the school, and the nicest building for blocks around is the new police station a short walk from campus.
Many of the 500 students on Parada's caseload are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Some have only one parent at home or live with other relatives.
At least half are failing, and most of those probably won't graduate, he says. Parada, 36, identifies with his students. He is one of them--an immigrant from El Salvador who arrived in South Los Angeles as a teenager speaking not a word of English.
He is equal parts counselor, father, therapist and priest to those who enter his closet-sized office.
On one recent morning, the girl who confides her secret about ditching school to smoke pot takes a seat, fidgeting nervously.
"I am messing up so much," she tells Parada, explaining that the police gave her a $250 truancy ticket, part of a crackdown on delinquency.
"If you get away from your friends, I guarantee that's half the battle," Parada tells her. "If you're with them and you think you're gonna give in, stop by and talk."
He pauses to study the girl, who has bright red lipstick and lopsided bangs. "Have you ever thought about what you'd like to be one day?"
"A police officer."
"Not like this. You'll have to change. You have an opportunity. You can tell your mom, 'I screwed up, but I'm going to try.' "
Parada urges the girl to come to school the following day. Instead, she ditches again.
In Short Supply for Many Years
Counselors have been in short supply for decades. Although their numbers nationally have grown nearly every year since 1960, their caseloads have remained stubbornly high because of the rise in school enrollments.
Along with school psychologists, social workers and nurses, counselors struggle to make a case for themselves in an era when schools tend to spend money with a single purpose: raising test scores.
"You can talk to a zillion counselors who will tell you how they make a difference, but we need the data that shows how a student is a better reader because of what we did," says Mark Kuranz, president of the American School Counselor Assn. and a high school counselor in Racine, Wis. "Everyone wants to hold schools accountable, so you have to play that game."