Kim Bertram recalls the rodent-infested, urine-stained garage she discovered the day she visited the home of a 7-year-old Huntington Park girl who was chronically absent from school.
As an attendance counselor for the Los Angeles Unified School District, Bertram frequently made house calls to check up on truant pupils. But this was no hooky-playing student. Huddled on the cold concrete floor lay a sick and hungry little girl. Her mother, confined to a wheelchair and dying of kidney failure, was unable to care for herself, much less get her daughter ready for class each morning.
With help from Bertram, the family began receiving assistance from the Los Angeles County Health Services agency and the little girl returned to school. When the mother died later that year, Bertram counseled the student as she got settled in with a foster family. The Huntington Park incident was just one of 600 cases handled last year by the 26-year-old Bertram, who has a master’s degree in social work.
Come February, however, Bertram and nine other attendance counselors at Los Angeles schools may find themselves out of a job. The school board is considering eliminating their positions because of a continuing financial crunch.
The proposed cuts have thrown the spotlight on a little-noticed program that school officials say is responsible for persuading hundreds of students to remain in school each year. There are 185 attendance counselors for the 625,000 students in the district, or one for about every 3,380 children.
But their numbers are dwindling. Earlier this year, the district eliminated 14 attendance counselor positions as part of sweeping cuts in which $220 million was slashed from its $4 billion annual budget.
“Children need to be in school to succeed, and if these positions are lost, it is the children who will suffer,” says Bertram, who divides her time among five elementary schools in South Gate and Boyle Heights.
Several of the counselors, who appeared before the school board recently to argue their case, also pointed out that their jobs actually make money for the district, because schools receive state funding based on student attendance.
School Supt. Bill Anton has said he hopes to find a way to avert the cuts, but district officials said last week there is no guarantee the jobs can be saved.
“There is a shortage of funds,” said Tom Killeen, a district administrator of personnel services. However, he called the positions “a priority,” adding that attendance counselors “perform a very valuable service, they help get kids . . . who are at risk get back into school.”
About 10% of the students in the system are absent every day, and the figure rises to between 15% and 20% on Mondays and Fridays,” said Cheryl Fayson, a district specialist who works with truants. Dropout rates approach 50% at some high schools.
While each school handles absences differently, Bertram is usually brought in after a student misses three days and teachers have been unable to reach parents at home. At that point, Bertram usually visits the family of the truant child at home.
During her three years on the job, Bertram has been threatened with physical harm, chased by dogs, had doors slammed in her face and found parents drunk or strung out on drugs at 10 a.m.
In response, she has set some ground rules for home visits. She won’t enter unfamiliar neighborhoods in the late afternoon. If she is uncertain, she checks with the local police first. If the area is indeed dangerous, she visits in the morning, sometimes bringing a friend along for protection.
“Most activity in dangerous areas doesn’t start until afternoon, because in the morning, they’re still sleeping from the night before,” Bertram says.
If parents refuse to cooperate, Bertram may turn the case over to a panel composed of police officers, county children’s services representatives, school counselors and members of the community to hear testimony and make recommendations. If parents still fail to comply, the district may turn the case over to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office for prosecution. If found guilty, parents can be fined up to $500 and sentenced to attend parenting classes.
As a vital link between the school and home, attendance counselors work closely with Los Angeles County child welfare and public health agencies, probation officers and local police. If they detect evidence of physical or sexual abuse, they notify the proper authorities.
Bertram says that success stories, such as that of Francisco and Jesus Alcauter, make her work worthwhile. She first heard about the boys last spring, when an anonymous caller reported two children living in a South Gate motel. When she knocked at the room, a woman in her late 20s opened the door a crack, then slammed it shut when Bertram tried to talk to her in Spanish.
But she persisted, and after several weeks, built up a rapport with the mother, Catalina Alcauter, who had just arrived from Mexico six months before. “She didn’t know about the school system, she didn’t know there was free schooling or that school was a good place for her children to be,” Bertram says.
Bertram helped get the children clothes and canned food. Then she drew the woman a map of the school, which was two blocks away, and walked with the family to school that first day.
At first, the children “didn’t have any of the social skills needed to sit at a desk,” Bertram recalled. Today however, the two boys, aged 7 and 8, have perfect attendance and are improving their grades. Bertram is now working to get their mother enrolled in adult school.
Attendance counselor Laura Orenstein, by contrast, works with junior high school students, who are more prone to drop out as they get older. Orenstein, whose job may also be eliminated in February, often works with students who are bused into the San Fernando Valley from more crowded schools elsewhere in the district. One case that tested her mettle last year involved a 13-year-old girl from Los Angeles who was bused into a junior high school in Granada Hills. The teen-ager, who had been physically and sexually abused, had been removed from her family and placed in a foster home. Traumatized, she reacted by ditching school and running away to a boyfriend’s house.
But Orenstein, who had won the girl’s confidence during earlier discussions, said the teen-ager called from her new hide-out to assure the counselor that she was all right.
When Orenstein drove out for a visit, she found the girl living with her 16-year-old boyfriend, who also was a truant. After long talks, including meals at a local fast-food restaurant, she persuaded them both to return to class.
And when school let out for the summer, Orenstein received an unexpected letter.
“You . . . make me proud and happy . . . you’re like my family,” the 13-year-old girl wrote to Orenstein.
“I’m really going to miss you. I hope you come visit (during) summer. It was nice and wonderful riding in your car, you taking me to McDonald’s. I hope God pays (you for) all these things you have done for me.”