School counselors' influence grows

With national attention intensifying on preparing students for college and careers, the nation’s estimated 103,000 school counselors in K12 schools are playing a more critical role in preparing students for life after graduation.

When Cory Notestine moved to Alamosa, a southern Colorado town founded by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, he saw many barriers standing in the way of student success.

The Alamosa School District is surrounded by farmland, on some of the highest-elevation terrain in the nation, and serves a student population that’s 64 percent Hispanic. Many live in poverty and come from families who never attended college. For some, even a $30 college application fee seemed impossible.

Careers are limited, and some families rarely travel outside the San Luis Valley, says Notestine, who worked as one of Alamosa High School’s two counselors from 2012 to 2015. After he arrived, he thought: If he couldn’t get students outside the valley, how could they bring those experiences to the students in it?

Notestine cultivated partnerships with state and community colleges with campuses in Alamosa, as well as regional colleges, to broaden student experiences with different colleges and careers. The plan included expanding a dual-enrollment program that helps about 90 of the 100 graduating seniors earn some form of college credit while in high school.

An Application Week in October and Scholarship Week in February provide support students need to enroll in college. “(Students) didn’t know what they wanted to do, and meeting with these reps, they find out what’s possible,” says Notestine, who now supervises counselors in the Colorado Springs School District.

With national attention intensifying on preparing students for college and careers, the nation’s estimated 103,000 school counselors in K12 schools are playing a more critical role in preparing students for life after graduation. For the first time this year, the White House hosted the Counselor of the Year awards in collaboration with the American School Counselor Association. First Lady Michelle Obama recognized Notestine as the nation’s 2015 top counselor.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Education’s FAFSA Completion Project provides high schools with data on students applying for federal student aid, often a critical part of a family’s decision to pursue college. But previously, schools relied on self-reported surveys for estimations of FAFSA completion, making it difficult for counselors to know who to target for help.

School counselor recommendations

  • Conduct a needs assessment using student data to determine specific learning gaps, such as low ACT participation, and then develop solutions.
  • Include counseling in district leadership training for principals. In addition, create job-specific PD for counselors.
  • Involve the community. Partner with local colleges and consider other professionals, such as tax experts, who can help parents complete FAFSA and their taxes at the same time.

“We know the power of an encouraging adult, and that’s especially critical for our most vulnerable students,” says Eric Waldo, executive director of Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative. “That is really our mission—to tell all of our young people that they have the potential to be successful beyond high school.”

Partner with colleges

In anticipation of Alamosa High School’s College Application week, teachers plaster classroom doors with their own college memorabilia. The effort, which blossomed under Notestine’s direction, creates excitement about the application blitz and prompts conversations with students about teachers’ alma maters.

Notestine also cultivated relationships with college representatives. Last year, recruiters, housing staff and financial aid workers from five different institutions volunteered to help seniors complete college applications during free periods.

The volunteers provide information about their schools, academic programs, college life and the application process. In addition, colleges waive application fees.

Alamosa’s programs grew after school and college leaders recognized the symbiotic relationship between the institutions. “It’s a community process,” Notestine says.

About 80 percent of graduating students plan to enroll in college, but only 65 percent actually do. “It’s a big advocacy piece for counselors to come out and say, ‘We are producing students who are prepared. How do we ensure they have access to those programs’” while not taking on college debt, Notestine says.

Scholarship Week in February has a similar energetic focus, with seniors applying for as many scholarships as they can—especially with nearby colleges such as Adams State University and Trinidad State Junior College. These schools offer scholarships designed for local students.

The high school hosts a parent FAFSA night to help families apply for financial aid. Such efforts increased student aid from $400,000 to more than $1.1 million the first year alone, Notestine says.

The initiative begins months earlier, with students writing personal statements, essays and resumes in English classes. In addition, students complete an Individual Career and Academic Plan, which guides them in exploring careers and post-secondary options.

Counselors review the plans with each of the school’s 500 students to offer specific guidance on post-graduation plans. “We know that developmentally, kids change their mind about what their interests are, and their exposure to different types of careers really develops their knowledge about what it means and what is the best fit,” Notestine says.

Never too early

In White Oaks Elementary in Gwinnett County Public Schools, northeast of Atlanta, counselor Jennifer Diaz created a career center to expose students to different professions. She starts early, offering students in kindergarten developmentally appropriate lessons on different industries and skills. “By the time you get to high school these days, if you’re not thinking about what college you’re going to, it’s a little bit late,” she says.

In the career center room, students can play-act in a miniature restaurant, toy store and medical center. Three or four students will pretend to cook, serve meals and ring up orders on a cash register while others play doctors and nurses, treating sick dolls and stuffed animals.

Diaz, a 2015 counselor of the year finalist, talks with the students about their interactions to help them understand and internalize what they’re learning.

Career instruction grows as students get older. For example, Diaz works with fifth-graders on a “Mini Georgia College Fair” and research colleges in the state. Working throughout the year, they learn about academic programs and tuition costs, and present reports with posters, videos and trivia quizzes.

The reports are displayed in the school’s hallways, where students and teachers discuss future college options. Students may learn about specific institutions, scholarships and financial aid for the first time.

“Ten-year-olds understand the meaning of the dollar and they can understand that it’s expensive,” Diaz says, “but we have conversations about how to pay for college and that there are ways to explore this.”

Counseling the counselors

Counselors have worked with students on career and college planning since the launch of Sputnik in 1957 increased demand for scientists and engineers. Their elevated role includes using sophisticated data to identify specific school needs and to map out improvements, says Jill Cook, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association.

Counselors may mine achievement data to create academic coaching groups to assist students who might fail. Or they may use data to help increase participation in dual-enrollment courses or ACT exams. “They’re integral to the school’s mission and leadership team,” she says.

It’s true in Albuquerque Public Schools in New Mexico, which dedicates 14 full-time school counselors to college and career planning and preparation, or one for each of its traditional high schools. Part of the focus includes specialized training to keep counselors up to date on new and changing college programs, says Freida Trujillo, a former district resource counselor who now works at Tony Hillerman Middle School.

Counselors train each month for more than two hours. They learn about FAFSA updates or how to convince students to set up college visits. They also use email to share ideas about scholarships and low-income students.

Offering counseling-specific training is vital because they often spend PD days in the same seminars as classroom teachers, but the content isn’t relevant to their position, Cook says.

Counselor PD can be done internally, such as in Albuquerque, or through association webinar and conferences. The Rocky Mountain Association for College Admission Counseling, for instance, has connected more than 450 professionals at secondary schools and higher ed institutions.

From a recent association presentation, for example, Albuquerque’s counselors learned how to help students make the best of a college fair and complete The Common Application, which can be used at more than 600 colleges. Making math relevant

Stacy Dearing, counselor in Morgan County Charter School System 60 miles outside Atlanta, says the most effective day-to-day work often occurs during conversations with students. When done correctly, they’re disproportionately powerful in building and strengthening relationships.

Dearing recalls one day watching a student climbing to the top of a jungle gym without fear or hesitation—a valuable asset in the marketplace, and particularly for power companies.

Striking up a conversation, she told him: “Do you know a lineman does that? You can make $100,000 a year.”

She saw his eyes light up. “No way!” he responded. She then discussed the math that he is learning and the training he’d likely need, making his classroom work relevant.

At its root, Dearing and other counselors say their work is about making students aware of their career possibilities, their potential, and how to overcome barriers to reach the post-secondary programs they’ll need to accomplish their goals.

Mackenzie Ryan is a freelance writer in Iowa.

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