Federal grant set to expand district’s counseling program

SAN MARCOS — Not all news is bad news. The San Marcos Unified School District, or SMUSD, wracked with deficits and budget cuts, landed a federal $1.2 million grant this month to expand its elementary school counseling program.
The grant was awarded on the strength of the success of the counseling program at Paloma Elementary, currently the only SMUSD elementary school with a counselor. The district will soon start similar programs at Joli Ann Leichtag and Alvin Dunn Elementary schools.
“It’s very exciting and it’s a three-year grant,” Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Gina Bishop said. “When we’re having to make cuts in so many things, this is such a great gift for kids.”
“It’s a breath of fresh air — a light in between the tunnels,” Palomar Principal Tracy Garcia said.
Paloma’s existing counseling program, headed by grant author Sylvia Stowers, offers a slew of services, from anger management and peer counseling to anti-bullying campaign and group sports.
The program has had measurable results. Within two years of her program’s inception, referral and suspension rates went down by 20 percent. Thanks to a partnership with Cal State San Marcos, a math tutoring program for underachieving students raised test scores by a full letter grade. The success of these efforts has reduced the workload for the school’s psychologist, Stower said.
The grant will continue funding for Stower’s program, and it will pay for counselors for the other two schools as well as a social worker who will work on all three campuses. Stower said she chose Joli Ann Leichstag and Alvin Dunn because they have similar demographics to Paloma. All three are Title 1 schools with more than 35 percent of the students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. These are schools with extra challenges, Stower said, often with a high proportion of ESL students.
“We’re hoping that teaching the schoolwide character education program will decrease disciplinary referrals and tardies and (will increase academic performance),” Joli Ann Leichstag Assistant Principal Carrie Geldard said.
Expanding the counseling program to three schools also creates a number of internship positions. Such openings are often scarce, Garcia said.
“Students who want a counseling degree or go into teaching need practical experience in an elementary school,” Garcia said. “This offers the opportunity to have real-life experience.”
Stowers is confident that the continued success of her counseling programs will allow her to some day expand her programs to every elementary school in the district.
“I am so blessed to be in such a district that can really look forward and support fresh new ideas,” Stowers said.

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