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Parents cite urgent need for counselors in LA schools who can aid DACA students

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | January 25, 2017

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An altar made in honor of undocumented students at a Día de los Muertos event. (Courtesy: Francisco Bravo's Facebook page)

An altar made in honor of undocumented students at a Día de los Muertos event. (Courtesy: Francisco Bravo’s Facebook page)

Thousands of undocumented students and educators received a respite from uncertainty Wednesday when the DACA program survived President Donald Trump’s first executive order on immigration. Earlier this week his spokesman stated that ending the program is not among the administration’s immediate priorities.

Still, for some parents, promises made by LA Unified officials that schools in LA are “safe zones” remain insufficient. Parents would like to be assured that both district and charter schools have enough school counselors, ready and prepared to assist DACA students at this critical time.

“We would like more counselors in quantity and quality. There is a lack of counselors in schools, and that is a big problem. We need to make sure they’re familiar with the different components of the immigration status of these students,” said Susana Zamorano, the mother of two Mexican immigrant students and lead parent organizer for CARECEN (Central American Resource Center).

Jesús Angulo, LA Unified’s director of academic and counseling services, acknowledged that working with these students is “delicate in nature” and noted that the district has been more proactive in communicating with schools and students and their families.

“We are really trying to support families now with this new administration. Within our district, we are providing the right information to our schools,” he said. “The familiarity of counselors with DACA, for example, varies from district to district, but we are being proactive to the need.”

Additionally, the deadline to apply for financial aid for college is fast approaching. Now more than ever, DACA and AB540 students require as much attention and support as possible from school counselors.

“It cannot be generalized that all the students who apply for financial aid to go to college are American citizens, that they all have social security numbers, that their parents work and they all file their taxes. It is not like that, that is not our reality,” Zamorano said.

Zamorano has experienced that first-hand as she also coordinates parents and students who attend CARECEN’s College Head Start program, which helps about 100 high school students every year by guiding and supporting them with their college applications.

She says she often receives calls from teachers who are seeking assistance in order to support students, because either there are not enough school counselors or they are not prepared to assist undocumented students. “The problem is bigger than we can imagine,” she said.

In LA Unified, there is one counselor for every 700 students, according to Angulo, while in some schools with more resources there is one counselor for every 400 students.

Alliance-College Ready Public Schools, the largest charter school network in Los Angeles, has partnered with CARECEN and the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) to make experts available to their students and families.

After conducting focus groups by their parent engagement specialists, Alliance identified a very high level of anxiety among parents and students, said Catherine Suitor, chief development and communications officer for Alliance College-Ready Public Schools. On a scale of 1 to 5, all of Alliance’s schools reported anxiety levels at 4’s and 5’s, with the exception of two schools that reported 3’s.

”It’s a very real problem,” she said. The charter network operates 28 schools attended by 12,500 students in disadvantaged areas of Los Angeles. Alliance has one counselor for every 250 students in their schools.

“Our specialists have delivered a package in English and Spanish to our counselors and school leaders. With CARECEN, we are collaborating by bringing legal experts to our schools to speak directly with families,” Suitor said.

Before the winter break, Alliance sent a letter to families assuring them that Alliance will not share their personal student information and advised them to take their own precautions.

Suitor also said her organization has joined a nationwide petition for an extension of DACA, sponsored by Stand for Children.

“What happens with DACA, it’s a huge concern for our students, our alumni who are in college now, and frankly we have employees, a couple teachers under DACA, so that is the most immediate thing we are focusing on,” she said. “The challenge with DACA is that we don’t know for sure what will happen. Until then it’s a question of judgment about the college financial aid application. We’re keeping our eyes on legislation.”

KIPP LAanother network of charter schools, has also joined the nationwide petition. KIPP LA has developed a booklet for immigrant families about their rights, which was distributed before the winter break, and is preparing to offer legal fairs for families in the coming weeks.

Just days after the presidential election, LA Unified added a post-election resources page to its website.

Angulo pointed out that the district links to the communication received in December by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, in which he asked school districts across the state to support the California Dream Act.

He also shared about the district’s ongoing negotiations with the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce to provide training and information to support district counselors on DACA and AB540 through the program L.A Cash for College.

Zamorano works with members of the CARECEN parent center assisting LA Unified high schools such as Miguel Contreras and the pilot UCLA Community, among others, with information and updates on immigration laws, because she believes it is of the utmost importance that undocumented students receive the correct assistance in completing the forms to request financial assistance.

“When assisting an AB 540 student, the application be must filled out a bit different from that of an American citizen. We have to take into account the laws in force but give them the opportunity to request certain funds,” she said. “The other aspect is the priority with which applications must be submitted, because the money available is less as the deadline approaches.”

Zamorano also said there is a risk of making mistakes in completing the application when one is not familiar with immigration laws. So there could be a risk of affecting a student’s immigration procedures if the information provided is wrong.

“I would like the district to be more open to collaborating with us because we have the experience in these cases,” Zamorano said. “There are few schools we collaborate with at the moment. Unfortunately, we have been allowed to do the minimum for such a big problem that exists.”

Angulo explained that the district values the support of community organizations that are experts in the subject and acknowledged that many families go to them first. However, the district is relying on state public institutions to have consistency in the information that is offered to the entire school community.

“We need to make sure that in our system, across the district,  everyone is given the same information. We need to make sure that the information a family receives in the Valley is consistent with the information families in East LA receive,” he said.

Zamorano and the parents she works with would like more counselors for students, and now more than ever they also need them to be prepared to deal with new immigration laws and many other challenges undocumented students will face.

“That is the reality of our children. They need to have an opportunity to apply on time to move forward with their education,” she said.

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