URORA MARTINEZ, former college counselor at Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center, helps Christian Moreno, 18, on one of her final days at work. / Credit: Maria Vera
Jorge Castaneda, 17 (on the left) and Christian Moreno, 18, explore college options online./Credit: Maria Vera

High schools in Boyle Heights will lose college guidance counselors this fall because of budget cuts, leaving students without key advisers as they prepare for college.

Local students expressed frustration and fear of being left alone to make vital decisions that will affect their future. Boyle Heights is a community made up predominantly of immigrants with low education levels, making it particularly difficult for first-generation students to receive advice at home as they prepare for college, educators and students here noted.

“My mom kept on telling me to go to college,” said GabrielaVega, a recent graduate from Felicitas and Gonzalo Méndez Learning Center, “but she “had no idea what was going on.”

Vega, 18, continued to call her laid-off college guidance counselor for advice this past summer, even though she had already been admitted to UC Merced. Her parents, while supportive, know little about the transition to college, she said.

Vega is not the only one who needs extra help. “The majority of the students are first generation,” said Aurora Martínez, the recently laid-off College Corner adviser at Méndez. “It’s going to be very difficult.”

College advisers in high schools provide students with the necessary resour-ces and guidance to prepare for college. For example, they organize workshops; help fill out applications; make sure students fulfill all requirements; provide information on scholarships, internships, and community service; explain financial aid; network with college admissions directors; and organize parent meetings.

At Méndez, which once had five counselors with different areas of expertise, Martinez, the sole college guidance counselor, was laid off, and her duties were split among four remaining academic coun-selors. The school has about 800 students.

At Theodore Roosevelt High School, the College Corner and the Career Center will be combined, with just one counselor serving about 3,200 students and providing advice on college and jobs. Before each center had by its own counselor and counselor’s assistant.

“The students fought very hard. They wrote petitions (and) letters to the community to keep both the Career Center and College Corner, and it still didn’t matter what they did,” said Teresa Carreto, the sole remaining job and college counselor at Roosevelt.

Ben Gertner, principal at the School of Communications, New Media and Technology, at Roosevelt said that the high school managed to keep the academic counselors assigned to each small school, with 12 in all, but that significant budget cuts forced the school to cut many other positions in addition to the College Corner counselor, including a bilingual coordinator, a dean, and several custodians. Other schools in the area lost 16 college counselors, according to the district’s chief financial officer.

Mónica García, president of the board of education, said she is committed to provide students with the necessary guidance to pursue higher education. Asked how the district planned to make up for the cutbacks, Garcia said that she had “an expectation” that help would be provided through “adults on campus or through partnerships.”

Aurora Martinez, former college counselor at Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center, helps Christian Moreno, 18, on one of her final days at work. / Credit: Maria Vera

Those programs could include the Boyle Heights Learning Collaborative; the THINK college program; Gear Up, a U.S. Department of Education program that takes students on trips to colleges across the country; and Volunteers of America Talent Search, she said. But many students feel they will not have the same level of guidance.

Mariela Mendoza, said the academic counselors focus primarily on making sure students graduate and less on preparing them for college. The school’s laid-off college counselor, she added, was “on top of it.”

“She was my inspiration.” Mendoza said. “If it wasn’t for her, none of the students would have had a plan after high school.”

David Sánchez, 18, a recent Roosevelt High graduate, said that the school’s College Corner helped him to get the fee waiver he needed to apply to Cal State Northridge. “I didn’t know what to do, and they helped me,” he said. “They told me what I needed to get and what kind of scholarships were best for me.”

A few days after the 2011 senior class graduated from Méndez, Martínez, the laid-off college adviser, packed her college flyers and pamphlets into boxes as she prepared to say goodbye. Students continued to visit her up until the end to get her last words of wisdom. Even though she was laid off in June, her passion and commitment led her to spend most of her summer advising students by phone without pay.

Pedro Mariscal, the valedictorian for Méndez’ School of Engineering and Technology, thanked Martinez for helping him through the college application process, even though she was assigned only to work with students from the School of Math and Science. The college counselor put time aside during lunch to help students at his school.

In March 2011, it became clear that Méndez High would not be able to afford to keep up the same level of counseling and someone had to be let go. Mauro Bautista, the principal for Méndez’ Math and Science School, said the School Site Council decided to lay off Martínez. The 12-person Council is made up of parents, students, teachers, one administrative staffer, and a retired principal, Marilyn Gavin, who abstained, said Bautista.

Bautista explained that all LAUSD schools go through a similar process when deciding how to allocate funds. García, the board president, believes that local decision making permits schools’ leaders to invest in the resources they think are the most necessary.

Although Bautista will have a lot on his plate this fall, he says he remains committed to helping students go to college. Bautista said he, the academic counselor, and teachers would take on some of the responsibilities of the college counselor.

Meanwhile, Ozzie López, executive director of the Boyle Heights Techno-logy Youth Center, which operates Boyle Heights Technology Academy, a high school of about 100 students, has offered to open the center’s College Corner to every Boyle Heights student who needs help. The Youth Center also provides free space to the Boyle Heights Beat news team.

Budget cuts have also affected the Technology Academy, though not as severely, since the school is not part of LAUSD, said López. The Techno-logy Academy will continue to have a college adviser whose position is funded by a grant López applied for because of his commitment to college counseling.

“I don’t agree with a lot of the cuts the district has made,” Lopez said. College advisers, he said “are the people who are the bridge to post-secondary education.”

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