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Sorry, no counselor today: A teacher’s plea for ESSA funding to help neediest students

Guest contributor | January 27, 2017

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teacher comforting crying preschool boy in classroom

By Misti D. Kemmer

Just last Thursday, I experienced one of those especially emotional days at work.

I got a call that the mother of one of my fourth-grade students had passed away. Not five minutes later, another student went to the back of the room, sat down in a chair and began to cry. I asked him what was wrong, if he’d been hurt, if something happened at home. No response. He just sat there as tears streamed down his face. Since he wouldn’t respond to me, I followed school protocol and called for the school counselor or psychologist to come help him — and me.

But our school hasn’t funded these positions for Thursdays.

There is no one trained to deal with grief counseling, no one to help with a non-responsive child sitting in the back of the room. Even the nurse is only district-funded for one day a week. The school pays for the other four out of our budget.

I work in a 100 percent Title I school in South Los Angeles. This means 100 percent of our student population lives in poverty. As I forced a smile for the rest of the faces looking up at me, my mind couldn’t help but wander to the recent headlines about the “supplement, not supplant” regulations being removed from the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.  

Did I just have a foreshadowing day of future days to come? In schools like mine, we need staff and resources beyond a typical school. We have students living in extreme poverty, many students who live in foster care or are homeless, students in abusive homes and students with parents in jail. We need counselors, a psychologist, attendance counselors and intervention teachers to help our students succeed.

With this change in the law, I am very concerned that next school year will be much like what I saw last Thursday. I am worried that a student will witness something in the neighborhood and need a counselor, and we won’t have one because the budget didn’t allow for it. Will we be able to fund a full-time nurse? Will we have to choose between a nurse or a counselor, weighing the options between physical and mental health for children as young as 4?

My heart breaks at the decision made to remove the supplement not supplant regulation, and I sincerely hope that it will not be a vision of days to come. I urge lawmakers, Mrs. DeVos, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, and anyone else involved in education decisions for our country to remember our neediest students. Please remember our students, who by virtue of ZIP code are the educational “have nots.” Think about our students living in trauma, poverty and gang-ridden neighborhoods when you decide what comes next for this law. Please don’t forget how much they need more than students in affluent or even middle-class neighborhoods.  

Today, I may face another motherless child and may have to get to the bottom of another crying friend at the back of the room. I just hope the counselor is funded for Fridays.

Misti D. Kemmer is a fourth-grade teacher at Russell Elementary School and a member of Educators 4 Excellence-Los Angeles.

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