High-school guidance counselors are often misunderstood, unappreciated, and not treated as educational leaders. Like teachers, principals and central office leaders, they ought to be held to high expectations and provided professional development that attends to their ever-changing roles.
Guidance counselors take on all the following challenges: supporting socio-emotional growth, teaching healthy living, parent-teacher-student mediation, discipline enforcement, and college and career readiness, among other duties.
But even in the best master’s degree programs, they rarely get a single day covering the last topic, college and career readiness. As one of my counselor colleagues says: “The sky might fall if there were actually an entire course devoted to college readiness support.”
Yet, by 2020, 70 percent of the jobs in Washington state will require a college degree or career credential. Meanwhile, the number of low-income students, whose first language is not English, or who are ethnic minorities, is rising. These students possess amazing assets. They also face significant challenges. Filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — or the new Washington Application for State Financial Aid (WASFA), which is state financial aid for students who can’t file a FAFSA due to immigration status — can be worse than filing taxes.
In these students’ schools, who figures out whether they need to take Spanish if they already speak Amharic fluently? Who makes sure they file the FAFSA so that they can afford to pay for the new Bachelor’s of Applied Science degree at South Seattle College? Increasingly, this is expected of the high-school guidance counselor.
College and career readiness can be a true navigational challenge for every single student. Guidance counselors in Washington support an average of 510 students per year. While I would love to advocate for a lower ratio of students to counselors, I’ll save my breath; this is, or should be, a given.
Instead, some of my colleagues have another solution: Create a local community of practice for counselors. Think of them as individuals who can and want to learn more. Don’t just release them for a two-day national conference. Create relevant, localized curriculum that is driven by their needs and that is up-to-date with the state’s, region’s and district’s newest policies, especially for college and career readiness.
Because of my work and research with the University of Washington’s Dream Project, I am part of a small team working on the region’s Race to the Top Stay Strong projects. This new professional development is headed up by a former guidance counselor and guest speakers include a few researchers, but also practitioners and administrators from local community colleges, admissions recruiters from state universities, and representatives from the Washington Student Achievement Council.
It’s extremely promising, but it’s funded by a federal grant. It would be a shame if it wasn’t sustained after the grant ends.
So here’s my question for leaders, parents, and others who care about equitable educational outcomes: Does your district have the same expectations and professional development for counselors as they do for teachers and others? If not, you might want to lower your expectations for your kids’ future.
Jenée Myers Twitchell is the director of the University of Washington Dream Project and is completing her Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy studies from the UW’s College of Education.