The counselors' office at Oakland's largest high school is empty -- and not just for the summer.
After learning he'd need to cut his budget by 12 percent, Skyline High School Principal Troy Johnston decided to zero out his counseling staff. He would shift most of their responsibilities to his assistant principals and rely on a small team of counselors, run out of the school district's central office, to help out when needed. A teacher on special assignment would take on some of the discipline and attendance duties.
"Some of my colleagues at the smaller schools said, 'We don't have counselors,'" Johnston said. "I said, 'Hmm, that's interesting. Could we provide services in a different fashion? Could we look at it differently?'"
School counselors are becoming an endangered species in some California districts. As school officials struggle to balance their budgets and keep cuts "away from the classroom," as the saying goes, there are fewer people dedicated to help students choose the right courses, prepare for college, apply for financial aid or even just to graduate from high school.
Mt. Diablo schools lost their guidance counselors years ago, and the Antioch and New Haven school districts shrunk their counseling staffs for the upcoming school year. East Side Union in San Jose eliminated more than 40 percent of its counseling positions in 2010, leaving just two counselors at most of its schools. This fall, more than half of Oakland's middle and high schools could be without school counselors, even as the district ramps up its graduation requirements for incoming freshmen.
Some say such a trend could lead to higher dropout rates and other disastrous consequences, especially at large schools. "It's already chaotic enough with the amount of people we have," said Lea Hamilton, 16, a Skyline student.
Even before the latest rounds of cuts, California had one of the highest student-to-counselor ratios in the nation. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, or NCES, California schools had one counselor for every 810 students in 2009-10. That's more than three times the recommended ratio of the American School Counseling Association and 76 percent higher than the national average.
Dina Juan knows firsthand what that ratio feels like. Dina was a freshman last year at Independence High in San Jose, which has four counselors for more than 3,400 students. When she requested a minor schedule change last fall, she recalled, the counselor simply said "no." She thought about asking for an explanation, but when she saw the woman hurriedly shuffling papers on her desk, she decided against it.
"She looked really busy, and I didn't want to bother her," she said.
Last year, the Californians for Justice advocacy group surveyed students at Oakland High School about their access to guidance counselors. Nearly 30 percent of the participants said they hadn't met with a counselor individually. Of those who had, just 28 percent reported that they had discussed college or career planning. Nearly 40 percent of the students surveyed said they did not think their counselors could help them achieve their goals.
Some experts say that's one reason school counseling has become undervalued: As it exists today in most schools, the job is impossible to do well.
"Of course, this is a catch-22: Since they are not seen as effective, what's the loss in letting counselors go?" Maurice Elias, a psychology professor at Rutgers, wrote in an essay published last year on an Edutopia blog.
In an interview, Elias said school counseling will be at risk until it is redefined. Counselors should be seen as quarterbacks, he said -- "expert problem-solvers" who promote the social-emotional, academic, vocational and character development of the students. Given advances in technology, he said, counselors shouldn't be saddled with clerical tasks, such as scheduling students' courses. He even questions the value of brief one-on-one meetings. With current student-counselor ratios, he said, that's like giving someone with a fever "one Aspirin every other day."
Rhem Bell, a counselor at Hayward's Mt. Eden High School, said he would like to be out of his office more, mingling with students and supporting teachers. But, he said, the demands of the job are so great -- finding services for homeless and emotionally traumatized students, mediating conflicts, college advising, scheduling -- that there simply isn't time.
School counseling received an election-year boost in 2006 when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a $200 million annual fund to increase the number of middle and high school counselors. The Legislature adopted the program, and the number of counselors in California rose by 20 percent between 2006 and 2007. In 2009, however, state lawmakers lifted spending restrictions from the fund, allowing cash-strapped school districts to use the counseling money however they wished.
Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors Inc., said that while most districts refrained from using that money for other purposes in 2009-10, that has changed. School staffing data for 2010-11 haven't been released, but Whitson said her association began receiving reports of cutbacks in the spring of 2010.
Whitson said counseling must take on a central, strategic role in increasing graduation rates and preparing students for life after high school -- or risk extinction.
Mt. Diablo Unified in Contra Costa County eliminated its guidance counselors 20 years ago to balance the budget, shifting scheduling responsibilities to assistant principals and newly created school services coordinators. The district has since cut three high school vice principals, putting a greater workload on the remaining administrators.
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.
Northgate graduate Bryant Perry and Clayton Valley High graduate Nicholas Milano said they were mostly on their own to figure out what they needed to do to graduate and go to college. 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 adviser helped him understand Cal State University requirements -- in the last semester of his senior year.
Johnston said he will make sure students at Skyline High School get what they need when they return to school in the fall. "I'm not willing to drop the ball," he said. "We're going to make sure we provide this service in a fantastic fashion."
But some are skeptical the already taxed administration will be able to handle the counseling load.
Hamilton said it didn't make sense to have administrators shouldering duties counselors were trained to do. Besides, she said, whenever she's needed something, "The counselors are the ones who have always helped me."