Too often we celebrate an incredible high school teacher or school counselor when what we really need to do is take a broader approach to helping students apply and go to college, especially during a pandemic.
As my school’s sole school counselor for nearly 600 students, I realize there’s never going to be enough time for me to reach each student. In fact, the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students, a ratio the country isn’t meeting right now.
That’s why our whole team approach focuses on setting expectations and communicating with students. Every conversation with a student begins or ends with a discussion about their grades and/or ACT score.
Our faculty is motivated because they can see themselves in their students’ shoes. Most of the staff are the first in their family to go to college, so we have a good sense of the questions and challenges they face.
Our college-going culture starts when students enter ninth grade and faculty members talk to them about their plans four years in the future. When senior year rolls around, the students know there’s an expectation that they’ll apply to college.
We also try to keep in mind that we’re in a pandemic and the anxiety is weighing on everyone. We talk to students about the health crisis, what’s going on in their lives and how this pandemic has affected them; we let them know we’re in this with them.
During the application season most of our students returned to school in alternating groups of small classes. This year, all seniors took a college and career readiness course, a new state requirement. It’s designed to assist students with the college application process and to help them become ready for their eventual careers.
Since our students could not visit colleges, we reached out to state colleges, universities and trade schools for virtual tours. We also worked with students to research three to five schools with the best match and fit while considering how their priorities may have changed due to the pandemic.
The return on this investment in students is amazing. It’s on my mind when I think back to a struggling student who was having a lot of family problems and wasn’t keeping up her grades.
She was kicked out of her house and bounced from house to house, staying with friends and family while trying to work to support herself. There was a time that it looked like she was going to just give up and quit school. We all worked to help her find a place to live, get caught up with her classes and apply to college.
We partnered with the local community college to get her the assistance she needed to attend. Today she’s still succeeding in college and pursuing her degree.
Resources from College Countdown Mississippi and the American College Application Campaign are very helpful. For instance, we go over ACAC’s recommendations that students consider criteria such as cost of attendance and how it can be paid, academic requirements, distance from home, majors offered and social environment.
All of these steps helped us achieve a 93% high school graduation rate (a nearly 25-percentage point increase over six years), with 94% of our students applying to at least one college this school year (an increase from the 70–80% participation rate in the past).
Our town is rural and we only have one high public high school; Mendenhall is located between Jackson and Hattiesburg. Many of our graduates must travel long distances for good-paying jobs. In the future, we want to turn our whole-school approach to college into a whole-town approach — our dream is to not only ignite the future for our students but also for our entire community in the 21st century economy.
Andrea Shivers is a school counselor at Mendenhall High School in Mendenhall, Miss. Shivers’ high school was named a School of Excellence by the American College Application Campaign for its “demonstrated commitment to student success.”