In order to make sure all students leave high school prepared for college, a greater emphasis must be placed on the often-overlooked role of school guidance counselors and how to engage them in more thoughtful and systematic ways.
Those were among the key points made Monday during a daylong White House college access seminar hosted at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“This is a great window of opportunity for all of us,” said former guidance-counselor-turned-education consultant Pam Martin, referring to the fact that college access has gained unprecedented attention from the White House as of late.
Monday’s meeting was a follow-up of sorts on the White House’s College Opportunity Agenda, launched earlier this year.
With attention on issues of college access from the highest levels of government, Martin said school systems and college access organizations must do more to expand the reach of what they do.
“One of the things that’s going to be important is to think about scalability,” Martin said, noting the Obama administration’s goal of making the United States the most college-educated country in the world by the year 2020.
“When we have programs that are really good, and they only reach 20 to 30 students, we can’t reach the goal,” she said.
Martin said more must be also done to reach students earlier than high school in order to make sure they are on track for college.
“Aspirations don’t start in high school. Academic readiness does not start in high school. It starts long before,” Martin said. “If a third grader is not reading, we can forget about college and career readiness.”
Martin made her remarks during a panel discussion that focused on innovative programming and research.
Joyce Brown, president of the Illinois-based Center for College and Career Readiness, spoke of how the role of guidance counselors in Chicago was “repurposed” through a counseling engagement initiative that relied on data to achieve equitable outcomes for all students.
“It was a whole district strategy,” Brown said.
Guided by research, Brown said, counselors were trained to look at attendance, grades and behavior in order to make sure students were on track for college.
“Going to college begins a long time before students put their name on a college application or fill out a FAFSA,” Brown said.
Brown said Chicago’s initiative—begun in 2004 and expanded upon since—can be scaled and replicated.
“It takes two basic components: Structured leadership and structured best practices,” Brown said.
Structured leadership, she said, is when a school district appoints a districtwide “counselor leader” who has power by virtue of being a member of a superintendent’s cabinet.
The structured best practices, she said, involve training and events that could range from “Technology Fridays” to summer institutes and monthly meetings. The idea, she said, is to train counselors to establish a “college readiness system” that achieves results through partnership.
Among other things, an evaluation of the initiative found that students served by counselors who were less burdened with non-guidance tasks, such as photocopying transcripts and discipline, were more likely to apply to three or more colleges and get accepted by the college they plan to attend.
Judy Petersen, Assistant Director of School Counseling at the Granite School District, spoke of how, not long ago, counselors in the district couldn’t be located on the district’s organization chart.
“For some 15 years, school counselors had been functioning and doing a pretty good job of working with all students in the Granite School District behind the scenes, behind the organizational charts of the Granite School District,” Petersen said, evoking laughter.
But through a new counselor training initiative, she said, the district established a new “Department of College and Career Readiness,” and counselors were referred to as “College and Career Readiness Counselors.”
“They were jazzed, they were excited, they were motivated counselors ready to step up and take ownership and speak out and speak loudly,” Petersen said. “What we saw over the next couple of years was a … refashioning, refocusing of their work.”
Laura Owen, Assistant Professor in the School Counseling Program at San Diego State University, recounted the results of an initiative in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that involved having a campaign to refer more students to their counselors in order to increase the number of students who complete the FAFSA—something that research shows is highly correlated with college enrollment. Ultimately, she said, the campaign led to 600 more students enrolling in college than who would have otherwise.