A recent proposal to put guidance counselors in Arlington elementary schools has sharply divided both the School Board and the task force assigned to study the school system's guidance program.
A majority of the 19-member task force, as well as several School Board members, argue that elementary students face problems at home and in school that require more counseling than teachers and principals can offer.
But three members of the task force asserted in a minority report that guidance counseling would invade students' privacy and drain time from academic work, and board member Margaret Bocek denounced the plan as "a jobs program" that ignores children's real needs.
Fairfax, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, as well as Alexandria and the District of Columbia, have guidance programs in their elementary schools. But Arlington has had no elementary counselors since 1976, when budget cuts eliminated funds for the program.
Some parents, School Board members and counselors had criticized the past program for failing to clearly define counselors' duties and, in some cases, providing for counselors to be assigned to do paper work rather than work with children.
Arlington educators who favor reinstatement of elementary school counselors argue that broken homes, increasing pressure to excel in school and the shifting demographics of the Washington area all contribute to the stress felt by very young students.
Larry Grove, principal of Swanson Intermediate School and a former elementary guidance counselor, said classroom teachers do not have the time or training to handle all students' emotional problems.
"We've probably got more concerns than we had 15 years ago with regard to youngsters and how they feel about themselves," Grove said.
"We have a number of youngsters who are children of single-parent families; we see more students with more and more time on their hands at the elementary level."
The task force minority report, presented to the School Board at its last meeting, says an elementary guidance program "is not only not needed but unwanted by those it is designed to serve."
"I think it's quite unethical," said Jeannette Koka, who helped write the minority report. "All they're doing is probing and delving into a situation that hurts the child. I don't like the idea that the school takes a superior attitude to the parents."
Bocek suggested that the schools spend money instead to reduce the student-teacher ratio by hiring more elementary teachers, those who see students most often and are best equipped to help them, she said.
Board member Dorothy Stambaugh disagreed, arguing that teachers can deprive an entire class of instruction when they take the time to counsel a few.
"What I anticipate guidance counselors doing is what a teacher is doing every day," she said. "But while the teacher is holding and hugging the child whose parents are going through a divorce, or trying to stop three kids who are terrorizing another, learning cannot go on."