Image: Luis Medina is a former school counselor and assistant principal at Norte Vista High School in Riverside County.
FONTANA, Calif. -- As the number of native Spanish speakers in California public schools rises, experts and educators alike say access to culturally competent counselors is key to future academic success.
But with recent cutbacks to counsling programs across the state – California ranks last nationwide in its counselor-to-student ratio, while almost one third of the state’s school districts do not have any counselling programs whatsoever – such counselors are becoming an endangered species.
For some of the 1.5 million designated English Language Learner (ELL) students in California, 85 percent of whom are Hispanic, that can pose a difficult, if not insurmountable challenge.
"The needs are at all levels,” says Josie Ervin, a board member with the Fontana Teachers Association, part of the Fontana Unified School District. “Colleagues tell me that they have young children who need this support, because they are witnesses of violence or because of the economic situation; many are homeless and are sleeping in cars.”
About 97 percent of designated ELL students in Fontana, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, are Hispanic. Many were hit hard by the economic recession that started in 2008. A majority – 75 percent – qualify for free or reduced meals.
But with the state’s recent economic downturn and drastic cuts to funding, the district in 2011 voted to get rid of its counseling services, letting go of 68 counselors in a move officials said saved close to $6 million. The district at the time was laboring under an $11 million deficit.
“Before the cuts, we had counselors [for students in] elementary, middle and high school,” recalls Ervin, who is also a Spanish teacher at Henry J. Kaiser High School. She notes that since the cuts, however, teachers have had to step in. "Many teachers have now taken on the role of counselors.”
A report on school safety released last week by The California Endowment shows that an overwhelming majority of California residents -- 84 percent -- support increasing the number of trained counselors in schools. The report came just days ahead of National School Counseling Week, which runs Feb. 4-8.
Esther Marquez, a school psychologist at Patriot High School in the Jurupa Unified School District, explains that many of the students that come through her office often interpose Spanish into their conversations.“It helps them connect,” she says.
In working with these students, issues of family trouble routinely come up, says Marquez, as do more sensistive topics involving drug abuse, harassment, or bullying and gender issues, something that because of cultural taboos, often goes unspoken between students and parents.
"In the Hispanic community, [that] is a controversial issue,” she points out. “Parents don’t want to accept their children's homosexuality.”
Working thorugh such emotionally charged topics with adolescent youth requires a level of trust that, Marquez says, takes time and, more importantly, understanding. It also means working with parents.
Lost in Translation
"Before I felt I couldn’t help my kids. I came to the school and there was no one who spoke Spanish,” remembers Alicia Loera, a 52-year-old mother of two whose youngest son, Steve, is set to graduate from Norte Vista High School, part of the Alvord Unified School District in Riverside County.
Today the school employs five counselors – four of them Spanish speakers – for its 2,300 students, 86 percent of whom are Hispanic. In 2001, when her daughter Evelin Lugo graduated from the school, it was another story.
“I didn’t feel guided,” says Lugo of her experience. “My advisor was not bilingual, so I had to translate for my mom. For me, it was very difficult because sometimes there were things I didn’t want my mom to know."
That same frustration was shared by her mother.
Loera says her inability to communicate with Lugo’s counselor prevented her from getting more involved in her daughter’s education. "When she did the translation, I asked her, ‘Are you telling me everything?’ My daughter would answer by saying she understood very little."
Now that she can speak with counselors, Loera says she’s far more enaged in her son’s schooling. For his part, Steve says counselors at the school have been availabe to him, offering encouragement on mainating his grades and thinking more about college.
One of those counselors is Luis Medina, who in 2011 became an assistant principal at Norte Vista. Born in El Salvador, Medina worked as a counselor at Loma Vista Middle School, where Steve and his sister both attended, before coming to Norte Vista in 2010.
“I trusted him because he speaks Spanish and he understands our problems," said Loera of Medina, who credits his work as a pastor working with youth in the church as the reason he entered the education field.
Now, as assistant principal, he says he is better positioned to have a deeper impact on the school and its students. "Thanks to what I learned from my years as a counselor, I can apply those techniques in my new role here.”
Still, not everyone is thrilled with the change.
Mary Boniface, whose daughter Ana attends Norte Vista and will graduate this year, says she is sad to see Medina move on from his role as counselor. Soon after Ana, 17, came to the school she began to struggle. Her grades slipped and she began to lose hope in being able to pursue her chosen career of nursing.
“I wasn’t doing very well,” says the high school senior, who credits Medina with instilling in her the desire to succeed. “He told me to try harder. He was the only one, the other teachers didn’t seem to care, but he did…”
She adds, almost as an afterthought, “maybe it’s because he’s Latino.”
A Path to Success
Sandra Sanchez graduated from Norte Vista in 2011. She now studies engineering at Stanford University, an achievement that has gained her something of a following in this small, tightly-knit community where some 24 percent of all students fail to graduate high school.
Statewide, the graduation rate stood at 84 percent for the 2010-2011 academic year.
Her mother, Maria Sanchez, is part of a local parent group at the school called “Parents Together,” which works to assist other Spanish speaking parents navigate the ins and outs of the Alvarod system.
“The lack of English limits us,” says Sanchez, 42, who notes that she “remained an observer” for much of her daughter’s education. “I can not take the credit … My children are outstanding students, but I said to myself that I had to learn about the application process because I still have two more children."
For Sandra, working with the school’s only non-Hispanic counselor wasn’t an issue. For her mother, however, it did pose something of a problem.
"My daughter was guided to the only counselor who doesn’t speak Spanish,” she said. “He helped her so much with the essay and guided her through the whole process ... and the only word I could say to him in English was: Thank you!”
"Being Hispanic, students can identify with me,” says Esther Marquez, a school psychologist at Patriot High School in the Jurupa Unified School District, where nearly 30 percent of students come from Spanish speaking households. “Sometimes [when] they can’t find the right word, they know they can tell me in Spanish.”
Patriot High School has six conselors -- four of them Spanish speaking -- serving roughly 5,500 students. Some 70 percent of students there qualified for free or reduced meals in 2011.
Marquez says that among the responsibilities of counselors at the school, identifying special needs students through testing and counseling services is key. She adds, however, that many of the students that come through her office prefer to speak Spanish.
Olga Rojas is a reporter with the Spanish-langauge newspaper La Prensa, covering Riverside, San Bernadino and Los Angeles counties. Before that she worked as a general reporter with El Universal and Frontera newspapers, both in her native Venezuela.
This story was produced as part of New America Media's 2012 education reporting fellowship for ethnic media journalists in California, with support from the California Education Policy Fund (CEPF) and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
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