Today’s young people need sophisticated skills to tackle life after high-school graduation, whether that includes college or a technical career. So what can counselors and other educators do to help them make this transition?
Some of the answer may lie in freeing counselors to mentor lagging students at all levels of school, including high school. Additional funding from the state Supreme Court’s mandate will be critical, but some creative repurposing of new and existing funds could also play a useful role.
High school counselors do help students with the college application process, but a myriad other duties limits the amount of time and energy they can put into this task. Oftentimes, this college advisement amounts to little more than impersonal classroom presentations.
Students whose families have already channeled them to higher education are the ones who get direction out of such presentations, while those who profoundly need the information tune out because they lack the framework of expectation and personal infrastructure upon which to hang what they are being told.
Outside of the family, the only really effective way to steer students toward post-secondary education is by building personal relationships with kids at each level of schooling. Unfortunately, our focus on testing has diverted considerable time from such informal tutelage, and budget cuts have further undercut that traditional role.
I remember one bright and skilled sophomore who had obvious potential but was on probation already and probably running with a gang. His draw to the street eventually outweighed his connection to what we had to offer. Could I have made a difference if I had had the time? Perhaps not, but he was one who needed some emotional investment on the part of others in order to do the right thing.
Sometimes on the high-school level, relatively late inspiration can be effective. I think of a son of Mexican immigrants, challenged by various staff members, including myself, who opted into an Advanced Placement class because he now recognized that was a way to prepare for a college future. He knew it would be a struggle, and it was, but in the end he forged new confidence in himself and his rising academic trajectory.
Today, high-school counselors strive to survive, as each year seems to bring at least one new responsibility on top of already too many others, none of which gets deleted. On the testing front, it has more recently fallen in part to counselors to track those kids who haven’t passed state mandated graduation exams and to channel them to the handful of alternate channels through which to meet the standard.
As a result, many counselors struggle with morale issues. Most are in the game because of a desire to help kids; yet too often counselors, and certainly high-school counselors, largely have become administrative custodians of data and managers of process.
So what to do? Some would argue our use of resources has reached an imbalance; we devote too much to testing that might be used in more productive ways. The kind of mentoring needed is people intensive, and hence expensive.
Adding more counselors on all levels and improving teacher-student ratios would be steps in the right direction.
In addition, there are adjunct human resources less expensive than counselors or teachers. For example, I have been intrigued by the work of City Year volunteers in encouraging school attendance in Seattle schools, as reported by the Seattle Times.
One informal study of allocation of high school counselor time found that as much as a quarter of what counselors encounter does not require counseling skills. For example, much graduation credit management and program planning could be handled by a detail competent instructional aide, who would be much cheaper than a full counselor.
Creative resource management of these sorts would not eliminate the need for counselors, but providing these resources could liberate counselors to more substantive empowerment work with disadvantaged students.
Bruce Brand retired recently from Kentwood High School after 28 years as a counselor and blogs about education at schooldog.wordpress.com.