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Rafael Ocampo looked at the long list of names and sighed. He had been planning to meet with them all that week, the dozens of kids with Fs and spotty attendance who raise red flags. But it was already Friday and the guidance counselor was swamped, barely able to carve out time to wolf down Mexican takeout for lunch.
It was early afternoon, and the day had been a blur of therapy-on-the-go at Roosevelt Middle School. First Ocampo met with the vice principal to deal with the boy who yanked chairs from under his classmates, then squelched a spat between two girls. He talked to a parent whose child had been bullied, tried to cheer up a girl who was downcast and stopped to talk to a boy caught harassing girls. And lunchtime was like a “telenovela” — a soap opera — a swirl of preteen drama to sort through.
Still boyish himself, a twentysomething with spiked hair and a soul patch, Ocampo is the kind of guy who raps easily with preteens, who hurried up to confide in him as he crisscrossed the Balboa Park campus at lunchtime and between classes. He is so trusted that earlier in the morning, as he pulled one girl out of her class to talk about a dustup with another girl, a passing student called out, “Listen to him!”
He had little time to pause between each crisis, yet he is lucky. His caseload of 277 students is smaller than that of most middle school guidance counselors, who can be saddled with as many as 500 children. Elementary school counselors in San Diego Unified often have to bounce from school to school, spending only a few days a week at each.
Roosevelt would ordinarily get less than two counselors for its 815 students, but the school spends some of its federal money for disadvantaged students to bring in two more, who cater to students’ academic, emotional and career needs. Principal Carmen Garcia sees them as part of its larger strategies to keep kids focused on school.
“Middle school is the Bermuda Triangle of education,” Ocampo said. “Either we get a hold of them — or we lose them.”
San Diego Unified also benefits from a state grant that encourages schools to bring in more counselors, which helped school districts statewide to improve their student-to-counselor ratios. But California has freed districts to use that money for any purpose — a temptation for school systems grappling with cuts.
And Ocampo is lucky to have a job at all. He was hired temporarily a year ago, but lost his job when his contract expired last summer. He spent months on unemployment before Roosevelt hired him back, just three days before school started, on another year-to-year contract. Ocampo is the only Roosevelt counselor who has been there for more than a year, following the same group of preteens from sixth grade to seventh, seeing them morph from kiddies to teens-in-training with hormones, makeup and bad attitudes. Like Gremlins, he joked.
And it has taken that year, Ocampo said, to build up some trust with the tiny girl with long hair and a face that has grown a little too familiar. She curses and bickers with teachers. She picks fights with other girls. Ocampo has been trying to get her outside counseling for months, but she isn’t interested.
So when she stopped by his cramped, windowless office, Ocampo set his red-flag list aside again and shut the door. It took a long time to coax her, but slowly the girl told him why she had come. She had been tempted to hurt someone — had even stolen something from a classroom to do it. But she handed the would-be-weapon over to Ocampo instead.
Ocampo wants to promise the girl that he will always be there for her at Roosevelt. But he can’t make that promise. He’s fearful that when the budget is slashed again, he will have to leave — either because Roosevelt can’t renew his job or because his paycheck will become too small for him to scrape by.
His mother wants him to move back to Yucaipa, where he grew up, to make a better living. He has a master’s degree in counseling from Point Loma Nazarene, but last year he waited tables at Joe’s Crab Shack on weekends to save up for a Europe trip. Now he worries as San Diego Unified talks about slashing his pay — $40,000 annually before taxes — by as much as eight percent.
Counseling has been relatively lucky in the budget crunch, said Melissa Janak, who oversees counseling, guidance and the discipline process at San Diego Unified. But as schools have dialed back on office staff, counselors have been left to pick up the slack.
Roosevelt counselors used to have their own secretary. But the worker was reassigned and is juggling more than one job, leaving Ocampo and his coworkers to field their calls and clerical work. His walkie-talkie is dying and Roosevelt can’t afford to replace it. While walking around campus, he had to rush back to his office to look up what classroom a student was in, because nobody in the main office was free to pull up the information.
Even the clerk who handles students’ disciplinary files is leaving for another school because Roosevelt cut back on her hours. All those things cut into the time for Ocampo to meet with kids, to slowly, painstakingly build that trust. Ocampo says he reminded the girl with the long hair that she could always come and talk to him. He offered again to help her find an outside counselor. The girl blew off that idea — but she wanted to keep speaking to him.
When she left there was another student waiting at his door, a boy who threw something in his classroom. Then there was the boy who couldn’t calm down and more to do with the boy who had yanked chairs. Class schedules had to be done. Ocampo still hadn’t checked his e-mail. And he had only met with six of the thirty students — the red flag kids — who he was supposed to meet with that week.
“I feel like I’m a dad to 277 kids,” Ocampo said between counseling sessions. “I’m doing all I can for them — but I don’t even know if I’m going to see them next year.”