California ranks worst in the nation when it comes to providing students with guidance counselors, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Authorities say the scarcity disproportionately affects the state's most vulnerable students because there simply are not enough counselors to track transient students and make sure they are taking the right credits to graduate.
The problem is most pronounced in impoverished districts, where, for a variety of reasons, students are most often on the move. Foster kids bounce around. Other kids move with parents who are looking for jobs and some are sent to live with relatives until their parents can get on their feet.
Transient students need guidance counselors to help them figure out their next steps. California law requires that transcripts follow students to their next school within two days of transfer. But with so few counselors, mistakes happen. The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250-to-1. In California, the ratio was 1,016-to-1 for the 2010-11 school year, the latest for which data is available.
Transcripts, which are solely schools' responsibility, may never be sent or they get lost and no one follows up. At the new school, counselors have to assign kids to classes without ever seeing a transcript. Students end up taking courses that don't count toward graduation.
"If you ask a teacher or a counselor why this happens, they'll often say, 'We didn't have a transcript,'" said Debra Sacks of Come Back Kids, a charter school that helps dropouts in Riverside County. "You have people just assigning classes without truly evaluating the needs of the students, and that's just negligent."
The decline in school counselors can be traced back to Proposition 13, according to Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors. The initiative, passed by California voters in 1978, lowered property taxes at a time when home values and thus tax assessments were skyrocketing. Senior citizens on fixed incomes were in danger of getting priced out of their homes.
As a side effect of Prop. 13, districts could no longer raise property taxes to fund education and were forced instead to rely on state funding and to fight with competing interests for the money.
The problem became worse when large numbers of counselors were laid off in California during the economic downturn that began in 2008. At the start of the recession, the state employed 7,839 counselors. Kathleen Rakestraw of the American School Counselor Association says that number dropped to 6,191 by the 2010-11 school year.
The impact of the layoffs has been compounded by the state's extraordinary population growth and by overcrowded schools. California does not mandate counselors, so schools don't have to employ them, and there is no one at the state education department whose job it is to advocate for their hiring. All of these factors, on top of the recession, have produced what Whitson calls a "perfect storm."
Switching schools nearly cost Jose Salas a diploma. In his freshman year of high school, his mother kicked him out when she learned he was gay. He bounced from one friend's house to another and to a new high school each year: Hawthorne High in South Los Angeles, Edison High in Fresno, Morningside High in Inglewood. Somehow he stayed on track to graduate.
Yet the high school where he enrolled next, Hillcrest Continuation High School in Inglewood, placed him in remedial classes usually assigned to students learning English. He took and passed 35 credits' worth in the fall semester before dropping out. Any guidance counselor looking at his transcripts would have seen that Salas had passed Advanced Placement English as an 11th-grader and didn't need those classes, said Nicole Patch, a counselor at YouthBuild Charter School of California, where Salas earned his high school diploma in 2013 at the age of 22.
"I have no idea why they placed him in that set of classes," Patch said. "This is a kid who had the skills. The work was being done. The school should have placed him in government and other courses he actually needed."
By the time Salas graduated, he had 268.5 credits. He only needed 200. Salas says he trusted his counselors to place him in required classes. "It is frustrating that things don't work that way."
Hillcrest High Continuation School, where Salas took the unnecessary credits, needed an overhaul, according to former Inglewood High School Principal Debbie Tate.
"It was essentially a dumping ground where schools sent their behavior problems," she said.
Tate has since taken over Hillcrest, now called Inglewood Continuation School. Under Tate's direction, the school has earned state accreditation, which means its courses now are aligned with college requirements. Tate acknowledges that transcripts get lost and that there isn't enough support staff to track them down. That's why she doesn't leave anything to chance: She personally reviews each of her students' transcripts.
Whitson hopes California schools soon will be able to provide more counselors where they are needed. Under a new funding law, more money will go to schools serving low-income students, foster children and students learning English. But districts can use this money as they see fit, and they may choose not to use it for guidance counselors.