When Monica Cain entered Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School as a 10th grader this year, she unhappily found herself assigned to an English class where students were being taught about nouns, adverbs and prepositional phrases.
"I learned that stuff in the sixth grade," she complained.
For his part, Fred Donaldson, a T.C. Williams senior, has taken advanced college placement courses for all three of his years at Williams, Alexandria's only high school. Yet, he said, his average rarely has reached a C.
"They should've put me back in the regular classes until I pulled myself up," he said.
Cain and Donaldson see themselves as victims not of poor planning on their part but of a school guidance department that they believe sometimes provides improper placement and inadequate counseling to students. They are not alone in their perceptions. A number of parents and school officials feel the same way.
The problem recently surfaced with the findings of a citizens advisory committee. The committee's report specifically charged school system guidance counselors with "just plugging bodies" into trade and industry programs at T.C. Williams' vocational education career center.
It "just confirmed what people had been saying for a long time: that guidance counselors weren't doing the job they were assigned to do," School Board member Harvey Harrison said.
However, the committee's findings have been challenged by guidance counselors and some school officials who say counselors are unfairly held responsible for solving all student problems.
At a recent School Board meeting, James McClure, director of guidance at T.C. Williams, testified that counselors are being made "the whipping boy." He argued that some of the answers to student problems may lie with teachers, parents, students and the system -- not solely with guidance counselors.
For example, McClure said, the committee found that many students in the vocational education program lacked basic academic skills. That, he said, is not directly the fault of guidance.
Still, the problems within school guidance counseling departments are serious enough to prompt the School Board to consider changes in the guidance program when it begins a major curriculum review this month, board president Lou Cook said.
Most concerns about the school system's guidance department involve counseling at junior and senior high schools. There are five guidance counselors at George Washington Junior High School, another five at Hammond Junior High School and the 10 assigned to T.C. Williams. Their mission is to encourage students to examine career possibilities early and map out courses that will qualify them for those careers.
Yet there are those who believe they often fall short of those goals. Some attribute those failures to a heavy work load.
Harrison, for instance, said there are several good counselors in the system but he is concerned many are bogged down doing paper work and disciplining students. Those kinds of duties keep them from meeting and working directly with students and parents, he said.
At T.C. Williams, counselors are each assigned responsibility for about 275 students and are required to meet with them individually at least twice a year, said Dorothy Murden, director of guidance for the entire school system.
High school counselors help students devise course schedules and help seniors apply for college and financial aid or prepare for full-time jobs upon graduation, she said.
But there are also allegations of incompetence, based in part on the reassignment a decade ago of some teachers to counseling positions.
Harrison said some of the reassigned teachers were judged unsatisfactory and placed "where they could do the least damage."
But Murden disagreed. "I don't think he can substantiate that," she said. Harrison may be referring to "a couple of people who will possibly retire soon," she said.
State certification requires that counselors have teaching experience and at least 21 graduate credits in counseling. Murden said the city requires counselors to have master's degrees in the field as well.
But there is also the problem, Murden said, of parents and students simply expecting too much from the guidance department. "If someone wants to get into Princeton and doesn't, it's often seen as the counselors' fault," she said.
Murden said three parents recently asked why counselors didn't take action to prevent their youngsters from being suspended. In a case where a student was suspended for breaking school regulations about smoking in the building, such questions are misplaced, Murden said. "I didn't tell him to smoke," she said.
But there are problems, officials concede, such as those highlighted by the advisory committee's report. As a result of that, the School Board is considering a proposal to require at least three of the 10 counselors at T.C. Williams to take specialized vocational education counseling training.
In the meantime, Murden said, the guidance department is taking steps to improve counseling overall. Counselors recently surveyed Virginia's four-year colleges and gave information on the institutions' requirements to all junior and senior high school students. The department also is devising a test to improve placement of handicapped students in academic and career programs, Murden said.
In the end, however, Murden said there is one thing that she, McClure and the system's other guidance department staffers will never be able to overcome: "We can't be everything to everybody," she said.