Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"My Guidance Counselor Said I Wouldn't Get In"

OK Let's talk about perceptions.

As college decisions start to roll in (monitor how we're doing here), articles tend to reach an annual peak focusing on the competitiveness of it all, minimizing the process, or how little school counselors can do to help students.

Yes, it is competitive. No, where you start isn't as important as where you finish. And yes, school counselors' impact is stunted when we have bloated caseloads or limited training and professional development in college planning.

Most aspiring school counselors pursue the career because they want to help children achieve their goals. Teachers do this, but many of the teachers who seek the role change report doing so in order to develop deeper and non-evaluative relationships with their students.

Once we are in our post-graduate master's programs to learn how to be school counselors, we learn that our roles are to break down barriers to student achievement, and to help students grow in their academic, career, and personal/social development. The typical school counseling masters program requires the following courses:
Introduction to Helping Services
Human Growth & Development
Use of Assessments
Career Development
Counseling Theories
Intro to counseling skills
Multicultural perspectives
Preinternship practice/supervision
Research & Statistics Methods
Advanced counseling techniques
Group Counseling
Field placement/internship
Some programs also offer electives in Special Education, Diagnosis, Substance Abuse Counseling, Pharmacology, and some do offer courses that include college planning, but the fact remains that college planning is not even available at all master's level programs.

So here we have a pre-professional or new school counselor who learns how to actively listen to students and implement a data-driven school counseling program that incorporates individual and group counseling to address students' personal, social, career, and academic development, and have solid skills in relationship-building, because we learn from Carl Rogers in our Theories class that clients experience the most growth with unconditional positive regard and the opportunity to arrive at their own conclusions. He or she secures a position in a school by showing through the interview process with knowledge about data-driven decision making and an awareness of the process to address students who show risk of self-harm. Then, they get into a school. Thankfully, the internships gave the elementary school counselor the necessary practice to conduct lessons. And a new school counselor hopefully has enough energy to withstand the challenges presented by middle schoolers, keeping those tweens aware that there is a world beyond their school years and to keep working toward hypothetical goals.

However, high school counselors arrive at their new positions and are asked daily by students and parents how to strategically plan coursework to maximize postsecondary options and differentiate the nuances between the several state colleges or flagship and brand name universities in neighboring states. The most competitive students and their parents ask for advice in navigating the ivy-league and highly selective college labyrinth. And here is where the bad press comes from. We are taught to close gaps for the lowest-performing students and provide services to as many students as possible, but many of us don't learn until about three or four years (or longer, if we "loop" with student cohorts) about trends and tendencies with college admissions with enough acuity to help the highest-achieving and most-motivated students, the ones who end up writing articles about what a poor job their guidance counselor did.

So let's talk about what school counselors do know. School counselors know how to interpret data. We use Naviance to help students search for colleges and we also use it for transcripts. The college to which we send most of our transcripts is Towson University, which makes that the "mode" college if we were think about colleges in terms of data. The average GPA for the current seniors is about 2.6 and the average SAT score for the seniors is currently about 490 on each test. So let's look at how an "average" senior stacks up against his or her peers who applied to the most popular college in the area:
What would you tell this student? Would you say that this student has a good shot at this college? A qualified school counselor would say something like, "I think that it's a good goal to set for yourself, and you should definitely give it a shot, but let's also talk about some backup plans." A responsible school counselor would have done some reading into admissions trends and established enough of a relationship and rapport with this student to know that this institution is lacking in students whose racial/ethnic/socioeconomic/family educational background are similar to this individual, and that between essays and letters of recommendation, perhaps the "noncognitive" factors can give this person enough of a boost to transcend the data trends - if the college in question actually processes few enough applications to read the essays or monitor noncognitive factors like grit and determination.

Before we had Naviance, we kept track of student admission trends using our own spreadsheets, and could have had the same student ask "what colleges do you think I should look into?" We would have used our spreadsheet, sorted by QPA, and recommended Stevenson, Morgan State, Frostburg, and U of Baltimore, because they are where students with a similar academic background have had recent success.
If that student were to ask about their chances at certain colleges, and the school counselor were to give an opinion based on both observation and data, the student would walk away with any of these thoughts, which are actual comments from recent senior perception surveys:
I recommend my counselor to be more encouraging during the college application process
be more vocal with concerns about a student's career
don't get students hopes up. 
Give clear straight-forward information about college and career plans
Using feedback from students, we should not get students' hopes up but should also be encouraging, yet be more vocal with our concerns. So what we are left with comes back to two major components of our training: establish and cultivate meaningful relationships with the students, and use research, data, and statistics for informed decision-making. When we follow these two principles, we are most likely to provide the support that students most need.
However, what this process lacks is imagination. Without intensive training that gets school counselors exposed to the thousands of colleges that our students overlook, or without funding to provide professional development or trips to support our own exploration of underexplored colleges, school counselors will continue to keep students in the well-traveled path. If school counselors can be provided more intensive relationships with the enrollment management professionals, we would know about the myriad special programs and admissions programs to help students get into their reach schools.
Here is what we at Pikesville do to combat this reputation so that the fewest possible graduates leave us with such a negative perception:
- The #PHSfit messaging in general
- The #PHSfit colleges of the day, through twitter and the morning announcements last year, and next year will also be posted on the blog
- 30-minute meetings with each junior to listen and help them develop college decision making plans
- increased classroom presence
- greater visibility and accessibility for individual appointments than students experienced in previous years

What do you think? If you would like suggest more to help us do a better job providing students post-secondary planning support, please email Mr. Goldman so that you can be on our advisory council next year.

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