So many students – so little (counseling) time

In a small office in Elk Grove’s Laguna Creek High School, counselor Alycia Sato takes on a monumental task – providing guidance to hundreds of students whatever their needs, from coping with stress to applying for college.

The student-counselor ratio at the campus, Sato said, is roughly 480 to 1, a level she calls unmanageable.

“The only kids we have time to meet with 100 percent are our seniors,” Sato said. “And we each have a little over 100 seniors to meet with. We have senior meetings. We go through their plans for college. But ideally, this should start in their freshman year.”

Many public high schools in the Sacramento region saw their counselor ranks shaved in the economic downturn, leaving them scrambling to meet the needs of their students. That occurred as the ranks of seniors applying to four-year colleges swelled.

Last year, Sato said, she wrote 92 letters of recommendation for college applicants. For most, “I did a pretty good job,” she said. But some students, she said, “I didn’t know well enough.”

The number of seniors in California public schools climbed 26 percent over 10 years through fall 2012, according to the state Department of Education. Counselors have not kept pace; today, they number only 8 percent more than a decade ago.

“I would say it’s a little overwhelming,” said Dave Drotts at Sacramento’s John F. Kennedy High School, where the student-counselor ratio tops 550 to 1.

Such high ratios mean counselors must find strategies for reaching more students effectively and, for lower classmen, schedule group meetings.

The focus starts with crises “and anyone who asks for attention,” Drotts said. “You have to start there, even if you have anything else (planned), phone calls, students, parents walking in, teachers. You work backwards from there.”

Many younger students do take initiative.

Jessie Woods, a 17-year-old senior in Laguna Creek’s International Baccalaureate program, said he sought Sato’s help three years ago to help find a class when another one fell through. She suggested he tutor peers in algebra for credit. After that, he was a regular visitor to her office.

Other students said Sato helped them put their personal frustrations and anxieties into perspective. Komal Dani, a 16-year-old senior in the IB program, said she will be the first in her family to attend college.

Dani said her meetings with Sato helped her reduce stress. “I get overwhelmed,” Dani said. “She reminds me to take a step back. Look at the big picture.”

Madeline Vasquez, a senior and also an IB student, said she first sought out Sato in her freshman year. Her visits became more frequent in the last half of her junior year as she began preparing for college. Vasquez, Dani and Woods each turned to the Common Application, which allows students to submit their paperwork electronically to multiple campuses.

Counselors must produce a secondary school report – a questionnaire – for each student who uses the Common Application, which is accepted by more than 500 mainly private colleges. Each submission requires a counselor’s letter of recommendation.

The letter needs to be personal, anecdotal and show the applicant’s strengths for admissions counselors at universities to take notice, Sato said.

“It’s to humanize the students rather than be a list of activities and accomplishments,” she said. “It tells what is unique about this student, why they are a good fit for the university.”

This fall, first-time freshman applications to California State University, Sacramento, were 26 percent higher than in fall 2009, CSUS data show. At UC Davis, 16.4 percent more California residents applied for admission this fall than for fall 2009.

Lloyd Chen, who last year gained national acclaim by garnering nine full-ride offers to elite universities, turned to Sato for help before he enrolled at Laguna Creek’s IB program. A frequent visitor to Sato’s office in high school, Chen now attends Harvard University.

“It’s part of something we tell parents,” Sato said. “Come in and talk to us.”

Counselors say the range of guidance goes well beyond college applications and includes keeping younger students on track to graduate.

“Dealing with a pregnant kid, a kid who is suicidal, or helping a kid apply to Stanford” are not out of the ordinary, said counselor Brian Hewitt of Antelope High School.

But, he added, “When you put your head on your pillow at night, you know you’ve made a difference.”