The Deepest Cuts State Budgets in Crisis

Innovative Guidance Program At Fairfax High Is Threatened

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 22, 2009; Page B01

One in a series of reports exploring the impact of budget cuts being contemplated by elected officials in Maryland and Virginia this session.

After years of expanding the role of school guidance counselors by engaging them in every facet of student life, Fairfax High School could be forced to retreat from its innovative approach.

The program is in peril because of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's plan to cut $425 million in Virginia education funding, and school officials say it is a reminder of what could be lost as leaders in Virginia and Maryland grapple with the agonizing budget choices before them.

Fairfax County Superintendent Jack D. Dale has proposed reducing the number of school counselors throughout the district. At Fairfax High, that would mean laying off two of the nine guidance counselors next year. That would leave the remaining staff with more students to monitor and less time to contemplate the broader needs of the student body.

"I'm concerned personally how we would be able to keep up the progress that we've made," said Marcy Miller, director of student services at the high school.

A spokesman for Kaine (D) said that although cutbacks are a reality of the current economic climate, the governor is trying to shield teachers from the carnage.

"Cuts ought to come outside of the classroom," said Gordon Hickey, a spokesman for the governor, so that they "do the least amount of harm as possible to teaching."

Kaine has fought to preserve money for the classroom, but his budget is likely to bring a major retrenchment of support staff such as counselors and social workers. Although state dollars are harder to link to specific programs in a system such as Fairfax's, where the county spends far more than state minimums, school officials predict a $40 million reduction.

Educators say it can be difficult to balance saving money with maintaining educational quality. When staff and programs are eliminated, the time it takes to rebuild them can lag far behind a rebound in the economy.

"These are things that, once they're taken away, they'll never be returned," said Scott Brabrand, principal of Fairfax High.

In recent years, Miller said, guidance counselors at Fairfax High have moved beyond the old model of college brochures and class recommendations by looking at broader trends in the student population.

For example, when counselors found in exit surveys that transfer students were the least likely to enjoy school, the counselors created a peer group to provide added support for new students when they arrive.

The counselors also used data to target groups of students who needed extra help improving scores on the Standards of Learning exams, the state tests that are used to comply with the No Child Left Behind law. They then used the information to match students with tutors.

As a result, Miller said, "we're down to a few students who are not passing" their Standards of Learning exams."

Miller has identified the counselors who would have to leave: two young staff members hired this year. Although they lack seniority, Miller said, they have mastered the data-driven approach to counseling and have taught it to older staffers.

"They're the guides for the college journey," Brabrand said. "We're going to be asking more students to make that journey for themselves."

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