EXCLUSIVE: High turnover of firm’s counselors at schools: Frail teens left behind

Two days after a gunman stormed Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and killed 17 people, a Miami businessman stepped forward and offered to send a pack of mental health counselors to the school for free. This was in his company’s wheelhouse. Motivational Coaches of America already had people embedded in 78 schools from Miami to Palm Beach County – and even more statewide.

The company boasts that its counselors have improved the lives of thousands of students while costing school districts nothing.

But a Palm Beach Post investigation paints a different picture. In several large school districts across the state, including Palm Beach County, turnover is high. Coaches say they aren’t getting paid and are forced to find other work, leaving vulnerable, sometimes sobbing teens with yet another adult who’s gone from their lives.

In 2015, Palm Beach County opened the school house door to the company known as MCUSA and by 2016 inked a deal to put the counselors – people trained in therapy and social work – in 39 middle and seven alternative schools.

In a closer look at the company’s operations, The Post found:

• In February, a dozen counselors in Palm Beach County quit. At least 10 have said they reluctantly stopped coming to work when MCUSA shorted them hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars or failed to pay them at all. Some tell The Post that not only haven’t they received all they are due, but MCUSA is also seeking to recover thousands from paychecks already cashed.

• Some schools have been through three or four coaches in two years. Some schools promised a counselor in the agreement with MCUSA never got one. Of the 28 schools that had counselors last fall, only eight still had them come April. Many say they left reluctantly only after pay disputes.

• The district was aware of turnover problems for more than a year, but only in February, after so many counselors quit, did administrators seek answers from MCUSA. The district launched an investigation and demanded a plan to correct rampant turnover, but little seems to have come from it. A termination letter drafted in March sits at the ready, as the contract that runs through June 2019 continues.

• MCUSA and school officials boasted publicly that the services were free thanks to grants and government partnerships. But the company’s business model has changed. It now relies more on insurance payouts, including more than $400,000 in the past two years from state Medicaid coffers.

• The company promised the school district no child would be turned away but told counselors they would be paid only for time spent with “sponsored” children — children with insurance.

The problems are not unique to Palm Beach County. Broward, Orange and Hillsborough school districts also report high turnover and coaches complaining about getting paid.

In April, three coaches from Polk, Pinellas and Miami-Dade, respectively, filed a federal lawsuit against MCUSA, claiming it failed to pay proper wages. Five more coaches had joined the suit by the end of May. Former coaches from Palm Beach County have contacted the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Because of the nature of the work, the worry goes beyond the counselors’ job security.

“The children have opened up to us, sharing their deepest concerns, and giving us their trust, only for us to disappear from their lives without warning,” former motivational coach Ashleigh Acker wrote in a letter to then-Palm Beach County Superintendent Robert Avossa and his senior staff in February, 12 days after Parkland.

“Many of the students that we serve have experienced traumas, losses and caregivers disappearing on them because of incarceration or deportation. For us to have to walk out of their lives and further harm their ability to trust adults, falls solely on the shoulders of MCUSA and its harmful business model.”

MCUSA’s founder and CEO Julio Avael III disputes that view.

“We don’t have a profitable model; we have a mission-driven model,” the 40-year-old counters.

Avael admits he’s long given up on grants and donations – grants run out, donors too often decline.

Instead, he’s come up with a strategy that taps insurers and Medicaid money to help kids before their problems tax emergency rooms and mental health systems. He says he spends his time recruiting insurers to include the services that MCUSA offers among their benefits. Then he trains counselors to work the system to get paid for their hours. MCUSA is just the middle man.

“These health plans absolutely have benefits that most people are not aware of that support these specific services,” Avael said.

Not doing paperwork correctly

And the counselors not getting their paychecks?

“One of the downsides to the model is this: If you don’t do your paperwork correctly, you don’t get paid. It’s that simple,” Avael said.

They’re failing to follow a very tightly written script for taking notes, documenting student needs and getting parents to sign off with Social Security numbers and proof of health insurance, he says.

Avael says the business paid him $68,000 last year, and that more than one MCUSA counselor earned even more.

Could paperwork alone sink 12 coaches in Palm Beach County to the point where they all quit in the span of a month? Could it account for the rampant turnover in schools in the past year?

In a Feb. 27 letter to principals, that’s what Avael blamed. The counselors were not in compliance, failing to submit necessary documentation to MCUSA and its insurance payors, and as a result the company wasn’t paying them.

Months later, Avael said paperwork wasn’t the only issue when it came to paying counselors. He said the company was dealt an unprecedented blow when its second largest insurance sponsor decided to withhold payment for an extended period of time. Eventually, MCUSA dipped into its reserves to pay when the insurer didn’t, he said.

But that wave of resignations?

“It was very concerning to me as well,” Avael said over coffee this spring. He said he couldn’t easily answer what the company’s turnover is, but “roughly 43 percent return the next year.” He estimated about a quarter go on to work for the school districts they were coaching in.

But the wave shouldn’t have surprised the district.

Problems with turnover had been brewing since the 2016-17 school year. They were disturbing enough last fall that the district’s liaison to MCUSA began to track each time a coach left.

“We have had several conversations with the CEO, and he promised he was going to restructure and be better. But it has gotten worse,” Aurora Francois said. “I wanted to document it on paper — in black and white.”

But it was Acker’s letter and the exodus of coaches that raised flags in the weeks after Parkland, when the national spotlight pivoted to student mental health.

The head of student services, Assistant Superintendent Eddie Ruiz, told The Post in March that the district was investigating. But by May, despite drafting a termination letter just in case, the investigation was sputtering.

District officials up to and including the former superintendent seemed only vaguely aware, if not completely misinformed, of how MCUSA paid its counselors. At least a couple of principals with coaches on their campus were even more in the dark.

For three months, the district made multiple requests to MCUSA for a promised plan to stem the tide of coach departures to no avail. Then on May 7, MCUSA submitted an outline that asks the district to supply a list of targeted schools with at least 75 sponsored students for the program and proposes that MCUSA staff meet with principals at schools assigned or interested in having a coach.

Attempts to reach out to other districts working with the company had largely died without MCUSA’s cooperation, the district reported in April.

Several districts contacted by The Post, however, did respond and shared similar concerns.

Broward officials said they would reconsider the program after a year-end review.

“It’s been quite a bit of turnovers, perhaps at more than half of the schools,” said Broward’s director of Student Services Laurel Thompson. As for Parkland, no MCUSA coaches were ever placed there.

But Ruiz seems satisfied with the explanations Avael has proffered.

“He talked me through the issues on his side. They tell them about the paperwork. They weren’t filling in this stuff correctly. I don’t think there was any malpractice or fraud that was done,” Ruiz said.

As for what would trigger the district to act on the termination letter?

Part of that depends on how MCUSA would fit into the district’s plan for addressing student mental health as required by new legislation, Ruiz said. “The (Post) article may be an indicating factor as well,” he said.

Brush with the law

Avael points to his own brush with the law as a 19-year-old as one reason he set out to help children.

In 1996, he was charged in a string of residential and vehicle burglaries in Douglas County, Nevada, pulled off with two others over a period of a couple months, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported. He later pleaded guilty to one charge each and was sent for six months to a youth camp that he fled when he said he was assaulted. Avael was eventually acquitted of escape.

“Now I get a new chance at life – a second chance and I won’t blow it,” The Associated Press quoted him as saying after that verdict was read.

In 2002, he enrolled at Florida International University to pursue an undergraduate degree in public administration. A year later, his work with Americorps landed him at Non-Violence Program USA, the predecessor of MCUSA.

He earned the public administration degree and a master’s in business management while he worked his way up from employee to president in 2012.

As president, Avael says on his LinkedIn account, he “expanded operations to encompass 200 employees covering 100 cities that serve the needs of over 15,000 patients a year, securing contracts and … provider status with 30 Florida-based insurance plans.”

In that biography, Avael also boasts he has secured five-year commitments with five school districts valued at $300 million. In May, MCUSA’s website listed relationships with a dozen Florida school districts.

Non-Violence project reported operating with $878,000 in grants in 2011, but by 2015 that pot had dwindled to $21,000, with an outstanding $200,000 loan for management expenses, according to the nonprofit’s 990 tax forms.

MCUSA’s change of business model went unnoticed by Avossa.

In December 2016, Avossa penned two opinion articles including one for The Post, touting MCUSA’s arrival in all of the district’s middle schools and the work they would do for free.

“These grant-funded coaches work with students individually and in small groups, acting as mentors and giving them skills they need to make good choices – whether it’s sharing strategies to cope with peer pressure, learning anger management techniques or handling stressful situations.”

Why MCUSA’s atttractive

School counselors of any stripe are in short supply nationally.

The American School Counseling Association recommends one guidance counselor for every 250 students. In Florida, the average counselor covers nearly twice as many students. And their jobs, particularly in middle and high schools, are often gobbled up with the academic side of the equation including test management and course selection.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends one psychologist for every 500 to 700 students. In reality, they are spread much thinner, with an estimated 1 for every 1,300 nationally.

Palm Beach County Schools employ staff guidance counselors and psychologists, but the district also has cooperative agreements with 33 different agencies that offer some sort of mental health counseling to students, Ruiz said. Some operate in specific schools; other agencies work with families and follow certain students into the classroom when the need arises.

Like MCUSA, some bill insurers including Medicaid for that time.

What was so appealing about MCUSA, regardless of who was footing the bill, was that it was supposed to put a dedicated counselor in each of the designated schools and that person would build lasting relationships with the students who needed help the most, Ruiz said.

And, the schools were promised, no child would be turned away.

“Their model is really unique compared to other agencies,” said Francois, the student services staffer who tracked MCUSA’s counselors. “In a sense, they provide full-time therapy and mental health counselors. That’s huge in light of what happened at Parkland.”

Palm Beach Lakes High Principal David Alfonso was thrilled that his was the one high schools in the district included in the MCUSA agreement.

“Let’s say you have a concern, a student with excessive absences, using drugs, not coming to school. Maybe they don’t come to school because they are working late hours? Our coaches get to go to the parents, provide counseling where it’s needed,” Alfonso said.

He said the school has seen a drop in repeat offenders fighting at school. “We’ve put an end to that because they’ve been able to intercede. If they weren’t here, I couldn’t do those follow up services.”

At a school of 2,300 students, the three coaches see about 150 students, Alfonso said. They’re also often an extra set of eyes at lunch time.

Still, there were bumps in the road.

Alfonso said one counselor left over a pay dispute. “He didn’t really give me an explanation. He said, ‘Thank you,’ and left. They replaced that person, and that person has left, too. What I’ve been hearing from the other coaches isn’t that they don’t get paid, but their pay is erratic.”

Lantana Middle’s students have been through at least three coaches, maybe four. Principal Ed Burke said he’s lost count.

“We’ve had several. There’ve been times when we didn’t have any. One guy showed up one day and decided not to come back,” Burke said.

“The kids seem to like them and they work well. But I’m a little frustrated right now because another one just left. I don’t know how that works, how they get paid,” Burke said. “I’d just like to have them for a while.”

Principals cite turnover

In May 2017, the district surveyed principals with coaches on campus. Overall, those who responded found tremendous value in them, with 17 agreeing that the counselors help students become more engaged academically, and that they addressed students’ social and emotional needs. Sixteen principals rated them highly valuable to their school.

Yet, 14 of 22 commenting principals also said the program needed to address turnover, pay issues or both.

“Our Motivational Coach… is outstanding and an asset to our school, but she is struggling with the pay structure set up by MCUSA. She has indicated her strong commitment to our school and the students as well as a high level of dedication; however, she may not be able to afford to stay due to the pay structure,” one principal said.

Warnings were there on Indeed.com when Ashleigh Acker went looking for a job. So when she interviewed for the job, she said she asked about it.

“I said the number one thing I see is people don’t get paid, if they get paid at all,” Acker recalled. “She said, ‘Thank you so much for bringing this up and giving me an opportunity to address this.’” Acker said her interviewer then blamed a problem on an outside vendor that had since been replaced.

“It sounded logical to me so I didn’t think anything else of it,” said Acker, who was placed at Lantana Middle.

Acker is a go-getter. A former event planner and legal assistant, she wasn’t afraid of hard work. MCUSA didn’t mince words: Establishing yourself as a coach would take hard work, she recalled.

She would be new at the school. She would have to build relationships with staff to get referrals. And then she would have to build a clientele large enough to support her hours of work. She would meet with students in groups and one-on-one, but she’d earn money only when those meetings involved students who were “sponsored.”

MCUSA pays coaches through a fee-for-service system.

Coaches accumulate engagement points for 15 minutes spent with a sponsored child, either in a group or one-on-one. Coaches are expected to earn 69 of those points per day at about $3 per point – or up to $215 a day.

They tracked time spent with each student and groups in an online notes system.

What ‘sponsored’ means

The former coaches who spoke to The Post varied in their understanding of what sponsorship meant – it was tied to insurance, certainly, but they were also told this wasn’t something that, for example, was applied to a family’s deductible; the family wouldn’t have to pay for anything.

What they all did understand was that determining a student’s status entailed inputting their name, Social Security number and insurance provider into MCUSA’s system – a time-consuming task that was not directly billable.

The student’s parents would also have to sign off on a form that requires those bits of private information.

Parents sometimes balked — they wondered why a free program would require insurance and Social Security details.

Even with the parent’s signature and information, not every student came back from MCUSA’s system sponsored, posing the next challenge.

Avael said the company does not pay counselors for time spent one-on-one with unsponsored children.

But schools are promised no child will be turned away.

That’s where groups come in. Fill your groups with a mix of sponsored and unsponsored students and minutes spent with the sponsored kids in the group will pay enough to make the time worth it.

“The way we designed the model, there should be more than enough sponsored children to essentially cover unsponsored children,” Avael said. “If you look at the data, 78 percent of all children in the state of Florida have some form of insurance that would have that specific member benefit that covers this program.”

By everyone’s account, building the caseload is the biggest challenge.

Some coaches were handed lists of students who were in the program before. Jade Chung, once the coach at Village Academy, a Delray Beach school populated with at-risk kids, was handed the entire school roster for middle and high.

“They gave me a set of kids that were on their radar, but they suggested running everyone because it is an inner city school and at any point in time these children are all dealing with trauma,” Chung said. “I thought it was smart to do. “

Chung was exhausted keying into a computer student information for 199 kids. In the end, she landed up to 37 clients, about 10 of whom weren’t sponsored, Chung later estimated. That was on target.

Acker, who came to counseling as a third career and said she was undaunted by having to roll up her sleeves, had to build from scratch.

But in the end, Acker’s roster was 52 deep and fewer than half were sponsored. 

Wayne Waddleton, a coach at JFK Middle in the fall of 2016, explains the problem:

“If you recruited 12 kids to be in the group and submit the paperwork, (and) if only three kids came back sponsored, you still had 12 kids in your group. You couldn’t say, ‘You can’t be in the group because you’re not sponsored.’”

“If a kid is disruptive, you couldn’t just kick them out — because they were sponsored. If you had group one day and those three didn’t show up, you still had to have group that day,” but you didn’t get paid, he said.

And then there’s the unexpected disruptions.

One week word got around that kids could roam the halls freely and use “heading to group” as an excuse not to be in class. The administration banned group for a week – another potential hit to Waddleton’s wallet.

Waddleton says he built a roster of about 80 students, 40 to 46 of whom were sponsored. He quit in December 2016, three months after starting.

“I was still enjoying the company of those kids,” Waddleton said. But a better job came along – one in his preferred field of drug counseling.

A former coach at Omni Middle described having 20 kids in the fall, but losing sponsorship for five to eight at the new year. “So then I’m not getting paid to see these kids.”

Attracted by the promise that she could make up to $55,000, this former coach said she worked almost a month before her first check. And by the time she left, the check was a week or two late. “They never paid me. I reached out a couple of times.” Then she quit and gave up on the money — $200 to $250. “Whatever I’d spend on a lawyer would be way more than I’d be getting back,” she said.

One coach was sent to two middle schools where she wasn’t able to get any sponsored students for a month, she said. Then she moved to a third. There, she built a caseload of about 45 students from the school’s entire enrollment. The coach reports 10 to 15 of the 45 weren’t sponsored, but that didn’t make their problems any less real.

“There were students with suicidal ideations, victims of bullying, problems at home. I couldn’t turn them away,” she said. Unsponsored students showed up at her door or asked for help daily, she said. And she’d make time – 15 or 30 minutes.

“After December break, I got discouraged. I didn’t get paid for the whole month of January and February,” she said.

“I connected with the kids. Created a bond. When I left, I cried. They made postcards for me. It was a sad situation,” she said.

Bruno Nze, who was assigned to Sligh Middle School in Hillsborough County, built a caseload of 25 to 30 students, but only three of them qualified as sponsored.

Despite having to work at the school during class hours, and putting in extra hours entering his notes, talking to parents, teachers and administrators, Nze went several weeks without being paid for the students for which he accumulated engagement points, the lawsuit says. He quit in mid-March and found the law offices of Wolfgang Florin and Scott Terry within a month.

The crux of the suit: MCUSA says coaches are contract workers who must hit their marks to be paid. The coaches and their lawyers say they were full-time employees who were assigned a school, had to work during school hours and beyond and were owed salaries.

What surprised the lawyers is how long their clients lingered without a check.

“It is rare to find employees not getting paid who would stay the length of time some of these people stayed. They believed sincerely it was valuable work for the kids,” Florin said. The coaches had to pick between the kids they were working to help and, in some cases, saving their own families by quitting to find a job that would pay the bills, he said.

But almost every coach has at least one story of vital connection.

There was a student whose dad died – OD’d — two days before Christmas, who could talk about it only with the MCUSA coach. A student with bipolar disorder who had to be Baker Acted during testing because of suicidal issues, but who blossomed with a coach.

“Divorce or parents getting incarcerated was two of the biggest things. My dad doesn’t love me, he cares about other kids more than me. Neglect. Some parents weren’t involved – the students were crying out for their parents to be involved,” recalled Chung, formerly at Delray’s Village Academy.

“I had one child, her closest relatives, they were all in jail at the same time. The student wouldn’t speak to anyone but me. They spoke to me about everything. The issue is they don’t trust anyone. So when they trust someone it’s a good thing – until you take that someone away.

“I cried for at least two weeks because I had to tell another child I was leaving. Emotionally it affected me, so I can only imagine how it affected the children,” Chung said.

Chung missed the kids so much, she stopped by the school so she could still see them. In May, when graduation rolled around, she went.

“They have so many people walking out of their lives. I didn’t want to be another.”

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