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The often overlooked high-school guidance counselor

El Rancho High School counselor Delia Madera in her office.
El Rancho High School counselor Delia Madera in her office.
Vanessa Romo/KPCC

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For graduating high school seniors and their parents the end of the academic year can be a very anxious, very busy time.

KPCC's Vanessa Romo reports that another, often overlooked person accompanies them on the frontlines -- the guidance counselor.

The mood on a high school campus changes in the final weeks of the year. From the languid complacency of early spring to an electric hum of activity as graduation and other rites of passage ramp up.

At El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera, one could argue, all that energy focuses on Delia Madera’s office. As the school’s guidance counselor she has to meet with every single senior before they can step into a cap and gown.

That’s 695 meetings and a parade of kids wearing skinny jeans and friendship bracelets in and out of Madera’s office all day.

"Senior year we bond a lot more because there’s more of a connection there," Madera says. "I’m constantly bringing them into the office."

By this point, the students headed to four-year colleges know where they’ve been accepted. Now it’s about making sure nothing slips through the cracks; sending their final transcripts to schools, filling out last-minute financial aid forms. That takes up about a third of the counselor’s day.

She spends the rest with kids on the verge of not graduating or at risk of failing a class, as during a closed-door discussion with a father and son about the boy’s odds of earning his diploma. Even through the heavy wood office door the emotion in the father’s muffled voice comes through.

"The parent wanted to know if their child was going to graduate or not. It’s really hard because I don’t have final grades right now. Some of them are borderline and they’re getting a little anxious. We’re coming down to the end. They want: Yes or No."

She says she can’t give them that answer until teachers submit final grades. As they wait, most families hold out hope for a D, or even a D minus, which is still a passing grade.

"A 'D' will get them to get a high school diploma but a student that has been accepted to a four-year college, and they get a 'D,' a college cannot...probably won’t take them."

A few minutes later, Carla Ascencio is waiting to see Madera. Ascencio is in independent studies. She’s shy with long curly hair and a round, chubby face. But there’s a reason for that.

"Yeah, I have a son and I had him on April 29th," Ascencio explains.

Ascencio dropped in for details on the commencement ceremony. She plans to march with her classmates.

Until now, Madera has stayed in official counselor mode: Giving Ascencio explicit instructions about what to do for the big day. But she slips into a more personal gear, asking about Ascencio’s son.

"Hard being a mom?" Madera asks.

"Not really," says Ascencio. "At first it was but now I’m getting used to it. He just wakes up twice at night. Lately. So it’s all good."

"And what are the plans after?" asks Madera.

"Go to school," Ascencio replies.

That snaps Madera back into counselor mode. After some probing, Ascencio confesses that she hasn’t registered at any community colleges.

Pico Rivera is a working class, largely immigrant city where the median family income is just under $60,000 a year. Madera says it’s been that way for decades.

Madera grew up blocks from El Rancho and graduated from the school, so she knows Carla Ascensio’s plans to go back to school can signal the difference between more of the same and the glimpse of a brighter future for her and her child. In each agreement to continue school that she coaxes from a student, Madera scores a small victory.

But there are bigger victories, too. Only 5-to-10 of El Rancho’s 695 seniors will not graduate this year. Some of those who will are headed far from home.

"Absolutely, we have students who are going to Brown, Yale, UCLA," says Ascencio.

A couple are headed to Stanford. When Delia Madera surveys the entire senior class, though, she assumes a suitably diplomatic Mom mode: "Now I get the whole picture like moms. They’re all my children. Because they all have very different stories and they all have accomplished many different things."

And although she’s happy to see them move forward she hopes they’ll be back, at some point, to tell her where they’ve been. No appointment necessary.