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LAUSD Is in Serious Need of Counseling

June 05, 2004|Sue Pascoe

Los Angeles Unified School District officials have axed counselors for middle grade and high schools next year, or, as they put it, they "approved a $12-million cut in counselor allocation." This information was contained in a May 5 district memo to principals that found its way to me.

When I've read in the past that counselors were being cut, I was upset but knew that budgets had to be met. Outrage set in this time, though, when I found out what "counselor allocation" means. The Board of Education is proposing one counselor for up to 1,999 middle school students. If a school has between 2,000 and 3,299 students, it qualifies for two counselors. Currently, the districtwide ratio is one to 700, and that is already too high.

Unbelievable. One counselor for 1,999 students.

Even if a counselor spent eight hours a day for a week on students' files, she'd have less than a minute per student -- without breaks for phone calls, going to classrooms or actually talking to kids.

The futility of what these counselors are being asked to do is beyond absurd. It's criminal.

A friend transferred her children from the Manhattan Beach Unified School District to the LAUSD. Her daughter was put in a set of classes where the work was far too easy and the math almost remedial for the girl. After many calls and much coordination with an overworked and understaffed counseling department, my friend was able to meet with teachers and a counselor to see whether her child shouldn't be in different classes. They eventually agreed the daughter should be in advanced classes, but by then it was May. That meant a whole school year had gone by and the girl would be playing catch-up this summer. If the mother hadn't taken an active role, there's a chance this girl would have been put in the wrong classes again next year.

What about the other students who need help, who may be in the wrong classes and whose parents aren't as persistent? How can guidance counselors with a ratio of 1 to 1,999 even hope to catch an error? Balancing the budget by cutting counselors is not the place to go.

Rather, greater accountability in the LAUSD is the first place to start. ExED, a nonprofit organization that supplies business services, technical and consulting advice for charter schools, has estimated that the LAUSD receives from local, state and federal governments an estimated $9,000 per pupil each year. That is a conservative estimate; some sources think it may be as high as $11,000 a year.

A year ago, our local high school received roughly $3,900 per pupil per year, leaving $5,100 for the board. Some of the money that the district keeps is for legitimate budget items like administration and transportation services. Even if the district spends $2,000 per pupil for those services, that leaves roughly $3,000 per pupil that is unaccounted for.

ExED tried to trace where that money went but couldn't find out. More amazing, a district representative told ExED the district didn't know either. A certain portion of the funds targeted for students appears to have disappeared, as in a magic act. A good magician, though, knows where things are going; the LAUSD doesn't. A magician isn't accountable to the people of the city; the LAUSD is. The pity is, when the LAUSD isn't accountable, it's the students who suffer. One counselor for 1,999 students is a tragedy that shouldn't be allowed.

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Sue Pascoe is a writer in Los Angeles.

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