Polk County Schools Cut College Advisors

LAKELAND (2011-8-24) -

The loss of federal stimulus dollars, the downturn in the economy and the decrease in property taxes - they’re playing havoc with our schools budgets, forcing them to make some difficult cuts. In Polk County, school employees are losing their jobs, including the high schools’ college advisors.

Toni Martorana is talking to student Kyle Jenko about his college applications:

“We do not need SAT 2’s for this one, so that’s good. So it’s just the Hopkins one you have to decide on. So we’re all set?“

Martorana has been a college and career counselor at a public high school for years. But today she’s counseling this high school senior at her kitchen table. Her job - at George Jenkins High School in Lakeland - has been eliminated.

The Polk County school district cut all college and career counseling specialists from the high schools. And fund-raising efforts to save their jobs by a group of parents have also fallen short.

“It is a tragedy. It’s an educational tragedy," says June Tyre. She worked with Martorana at George Jenkins High School.

She says her job was to help kids plan for the future. Not just for college - but for the military or for vocational school. And for those heading to college, the counselors would take kids and parents through the ever-changing array of federal aid, state scholarships, and private grants or loans.

“And the changes come very quickly," Tyre says. "There were a lot of changes for example just this past spring in Bright Futures. And many people left school without understanding the implications of those changes when their students come back now.”

And understanding the financial aid process, says Martorano, is critical.

“We have had many students who if it weren’t for us - and I’m not just saying it ‘s because of us, but because of the position - would not have gone to college. I could name several this year.”

There's the student who’s starting her freshman year at Florida Southern, for example. It’s a private college that costs about $34,000 per year to attend.

“We’ve got Bright Futures, we’ve got Florida Southern scholarships, we’ve got outside scholarships, we’ve got federal aid for her. Her mother, from Cuba, would have had no clue how to do that, and neither would she have.”

But students likely won’t get that kind of the financial advice this year.
School officials say they had to cut somewhere. The Polk County school district had a $34 million shortfall and didn’t want to lose teachers. They laid off 135 people in non-instructional jobs.

It was the high school principals that chose to eliminate the college advisors, said David Lewis, Associate Superintendent for Learning. They were brought together and asked which positions they felt they could eliminate, if they had to.

“The principals, many of them, decided they could repurpose those positions and redistribute those responsibilities within the guidance department or other jobs they had available through other funding sources.”

Martorana and Tyre say this plan won’t work. Many guidance counselors carry caseloads of several hundred students, and are already overwhelmed with the demands of helping students get through high school. They simply don’t have the time to take on post-secondary planning.

And Lewis acknowledges it won’t be perfect.

“Certainly we don’t feel like the intensity and focus will be there for all students as we’d like it to be, and certainly that’s a valuable reason why the college and career specialists were an integral part of our guidance department. But we’re going to have to make do the best we can with the opportunities we have.”

One group of parents didn’t want to make do with no college advisors. The academic booster club at George Jenkins told the school board they wanted to raise the money from the community to save the jobs. Cindy Ross, wife of Republican Congressman Dennis Ross, spearheaded the effort.

Another parent, Lisa Oliver, became the treasurer.

“We did yard sales," says Oliver, "we had bunco nights, some of the schools had car wash, and barbeques.”

To save college and career counseling at three Polk County high schools, the school board gave the volunteers six weeks to raise $180,000. They raised $26,000.

Oiver says her committee is re-grouping, but doesn’t want to give up.

*We feel if we don’t do something just going to be erased from Polk County schools, never to happen again.”

And, Oliver says, other school districts may be following Polk County’s example. A college counselor from Manatee County asked to meet with her. She’d just learned that the college and career advisors were being cut from those schools, as well.

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