MERCED -- The addition of an academic counselor in August might already be paying off at Los Banos Junior High School.
The walls of Maricela Guillen's office are covered with the names and ambitions, on business card-sized rectangles, of each of the nearly 1,500 students at the school.
Guillen said the cards get students thinking about a career and allow them to change their minds.
In her first semester, Guillen has extended tutoring hours and introduced some junior high students to the ACT Explore program, a precursor to the ACT college entrance test that many will take in high school.
"I think what's most important is that I make that connection with the students," she said. "I want them to really start feeling comfortable with coming into the office and speaking to me."
Adding an administrator, Guillen said, is a way to supply students with more resources as they prepare for life in high school and beyond. She is the school's first full-time counselor. The school had relied on part-time and intern counselors in the past.
"It's the time to start thinking about career and dreams," Guillen said.
Getting 12- and 13-year-olds to think about college can be a challenge, she said. Junior high students are already dealing with changes -- scholastic, personal and physical.
Before August, Guillen was an academic counselor at Los Banos High School for five years, so she has counseled at every secondary grade level. Her largest load at Los Banos High was about 900 students, she said.
"Being able to manage that number at the high school is definitely helping me (to) be able to do the best I can with the caseload here," she said.
Guillen said this week she began elementary school visits, where she meets with sixth-graders.
"I'm loving it -- just making that connection with them already is really important to me," Guillen said.
Principal Deo Brasil said Guillen offers student services beyond those provided by past counselors. Brasil said Guillen implemented a six-year plan, which builds off the four-year plan high-schoolers follow.
"That is really the key that she is bringing to us," Brasil said. "For us, for a five-year or six-year plan, (it's the) first time ever."
Brasil said the extra administrator can focus on students meeting their academic and California State Testing goals on a grander scale than previous years.
Brasil said administrators have seen a decrease in the number of students carrying a lower than 2.0 GPA since Guillen began meeting with those students and their families. Brasil said face-to-face sessions are exponentially better than a letter in the mail.
"She's been a real true asset to the junior high team," Brasil said.
Guillen, who is bilingual, said she worked in human resources for a time before becoming a counselor.
Originally from Turlock, Guillen studied business at California State University, Stanislaus, and attained a master's in educational counseling at the University of La Verne, a Los Angeles-based school with satellite classes in Modesto and Manteca. She said she's considering a doctorate in religious studies.
"I love school," Guillen said. "I'm one of those life-long learners."
Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at tmiller@losbanos