Wednesday, February 20, 2019

How Are Your Seniors Doing?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Many school counselors feel this is the least wonderful time of the year.  Between scheduling students for next year’s classes (not really a counseling duty) and beginning the coordination of spring testing (really not a counseling duty), it’s easy for counselors to wonder exactly why they’re getting up in the morning.

Incredibly enough, we aren’t alone.  This same level of existential angst is alive and well in most of your seniors.  With college applications complete, and with most of them now in the last classes of their high school career, there isn’t all that much for them to plan or anticipate.  It’s certainly likely some of them are thinking about graduation day, but as that becomes more of a reality, new feelings about high school are starting to surface, and they aren’t always glowing.

Welcome to the senior doldrums, an attitude that can afflict even the most conscientious senior. While senioritis describes a slowdown in productivity that can be seen, the senior doldrums is more of a mindset, and can exist even in the most ambitious, hardworking senior.  It’s less about what they’re doing, and more about how they’re feeling about what they’re doing—or what they’ve done.

This malaise can easily be misinterpreted as anxiety about college, as a number of students are still waiting for admissions decisions or financial aid packages that will shape their plans for life after high school.  But even the students who have heard from their colleges, and know what next year will bring, can suddenly seem listless, uninterested, and noncommunicative, even if they’re in at their dream school, and life looks pretty great.

What’s the cause of this sluggishness?  Like all counseling issues, it depends.  For some, the fact that everything is settled makes them, well, unsettled.  There’s nothing to plan, nothing to anticipate, no what-if scenarios to build hypothetical responses to.  To these students, the thinking is done. Now it’s just a question of show up, punch the clock, and wait until June.

Others have a different issue.  They’re looking at their college options and wondering if they could have done better—whatever that might mean.  This leads some to start looking back at their high school career and asking the same question.  Would honors classes really have been that hard?  Would I have made the wrestling team if I had tried out?  Would Jackie have gone out with me if I had asked her?  Since going back isn’t an option, and moving forward can’t really start until after graduation, it’s easy to think all that’s left to do now is to live in the world of what-if?

The best thing for counselors and students to do right now is to enjoy each other’s company.  Counselors need to set aside the scheduling spreadsheets and the No. 2 pencils and spend more time with some seniors.  Call up the local pizzeria and ask them to sponsor some senior lunches, where you and 8-10 seniors sit around and catch up.  Mozzarella is a powerful antidote for many of the ills of youth, and creating a space that pulls students into a better world is what counselors do best.  You don’t have to have much of an agenda, just a listening ear, and an eagerness to let seniors know you care about them.  Now that’s doing your job.

You might strike out getting sponsored pizza lunches, but you get the idea.  Right now, seniors and counselors are stuck in a rut of the mundane.  As usual, the answer to getting back in high gear lies in supporting one another. You can find a way.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Want More School Counselors in Your State? Do This

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

2019 is off to a strong start when it comes to school counselors.  An avalanche of columns, stories, and evening news shows are devoted to the need for more school counselors, based in large part on the release of the Safe Schools Report from the US Department of Education in December.

The story isn’t new to most of us, but just in case, here’s the summary:
  • In order for school counselors to do what are trained to do, they need to have a caseload that isn’t more than 250 students.
  • In a vast majority of states, that just isn’t the case. For 2015-16, the average caseload in the US is 464 students per counselor, with Arizona leading the nation with an average of 904.  Only three states are at or below the recommended ratio of 250 students.
  • The recommended ratio of 250 assumes counselors spend 80 percent of their school day working directly with students. Since most counselors are assigned duties that have nothing to do with counseling—think schedule changes and standardized test supervision—that 80 percent level is a distant dream for most counselors.
Scattered among the media releases calling for more counselors are reports of states trying to improve the counseling picture.  Utah has called for placing at least one college adviser in every school.  (Advisers are not typically counselors, but they help counselors with the college readiness part of the counseling curriculum.) Arizona’s governor has proposed a budget that includes more funding for school counselors, and Michigan has introduced a bill requiring a counselor ratio of not more than 450 to 1.

This kind of momentum is vital, and long overdue—but it also isn’t new, since calls for more counselors crop up about every 3-4 years.  What could make this year’s efforts different?  Consider these three steps.

Focus the need on students, not counselors  More than a few policy makers at the state and national level tell me they are tired of hearing about the need for more counselors.  Instead, they’re interested in hearing about the need for more services for students.  The difference may seem small, but it’s vital.  There are far more students and parents in a legislator’s district than school counselors.  Framing the need based on the folks back home makes the argument more real to legislators, and the need more urgent.  Keep the message on the students.

Seek the support of the business community  Legislation to upgrade counselor training in college and career advising had been introduced in Michigan for four years, and failed each time.  Once the business community entered the discussion, and talked about the role school counselors play in making sure students knew about the vast array of career options in the state, legislators paid attention in a new way, and the bill became law.  Sure, more school counselors will build students with stronger self-esteem, but pointing out the more tangible aspects to society isn’t a bad idea, either. Employers can do that.

Bring the data  Studies abound showing the difference counselors make in college attainment, career development, mental health, and more.  Even better, these studies are written with policy makers in mind, so they’re rich with statistics everyone can relate to (“Add a school counselor, and college attainment increases by ten percent.”) Individual stories of student success warm the heart and inspire, while data paints a broader picture that points out the benefit to society as a whole.  Bring both when talking to legislators—and don’t forget to seek out the help of the principals’ and superintendents’ organizations to show complete educational support of this vital goal.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

What Your School Counselor Wish You Knew About Their Job

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

National School Counselor Week is upon us once again, and it seems to be getting more promotion than ever before. Since most of this work is done behind the scenes, publicly celebrating the tireless efforts of these dedicated professionals means even more to school counselors, where something as simple as a sincere “thank you” can go a long way.

Amid the thank-you notes, group photos, and cakes and cookies being prepared for school counselors, parents and educators sometimes wonder if there is more that can be done to support the counseling work done in their local schools. Needs of individual counseling programs vary greatly, but as a rule, the school counseling profession could make great strides if communities worked together to focus on these counselor issues:

A larger understanding of what school counselors do  School counselors are trained to help students in three key areas: academic success, social and emotional development, and career and college awareness.  Counselors receive training in how to develop programs and services that meet the individual needs of their students and communities, all centered on these three areas.

An understanding of what counselors shouldn’t be doing  People are often surprised the list of counselor duties doesn’t include things like schedule changes and standardized test supervision.  It’s hard to say just when these duties became part of a counselor’s role in some schools, but it’s clear that they keep the counselor from offering the services they were hired to complete.  Since there are only so many hours in a day, this can easily limit student access to a counselor, and that prohibits student growth.

An appreciation for counselor caseloads  Given everything counselors do to support students, the American School Counselor Association suggests counselors can only be completely effective if they’re working with not more than 250 students—and even then, meeting students needs is a challenge. Unfortunately, the average public school counselor has a caseload of 494 students nationwide, with some states having an average caseload of over 900.  Throw in duties that don’t really belong to counselors, and you can see why your child might not be able to see a counselor—especially if they’re one of the millions of students attending a school with no counselor at all.

The need for updating of their training  Trends and issues in mental health and college and career opportunities are always changing, and counselors need to stay on top of these changes in order to best serve their students.  Professional development is available in these areas, and is often free—but many counselors can’t get to the training if they can’t leave their building.  Many schools only have one counselor, but if they don’t get out to get the updates, their effectiveness starts to fade, and that benefits no one.

What they should be called  Like so many other jobs, the role of a school counselor has greatly expanded in the last thirty years—so much so that counselors generally prefer being called “school counselor” rather than “guidance counselor.”  It may seem like a small thing, but as school counselors know, small things can make a huge difference.

If you’d like to keep the support of your school counselor going past National School Counselor Week, take a moment to ask your counselor what the community and district can do to support their work.  Since few people ask, your question might catch them by surprise, but be patient—they’ll be happy to share.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Eight Reminders for Your College Applicants

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Now that the calendar has turned to a new year, seniors are turning their attention to
graduation.  It’s easy to see why, since the end of high school includes so many exciting activities—but it’s also important to make sure students are doing what they need to do to make sure graduation happens on time.

This is especially true for seniors who have applied to college.  Most of them assume all that’s left for them to do now is wait to hear back from their colleges.  That may be true for some, but more and more colleges are reaching out to students with all kinds of requests and reminders.  Here’s a list you may want to share with your seniors, so the logistics of applying to college stay on track.

Make sure you’re graduating.  Colleges don’t care about gym credits; your high school might.  Now is the time to make sure you’re really going to be done with high school this spring.  Ask your counselor one last time.

Check your email regularly, including the spam filter.  Email may seem like old news to you, but it’s the way most colleges still reach out to students.  This is how you’ll know if your application is incomplete, if there’s a housing deposit due, or if there’s a scholarship you could qualify for.  Check email three times a week, and include a search of your spam filter—you never know what you might find.

Complete the FAFSA and other financial aid forms.  Getting into college is great; being able to pay for it is even better.  Many states have a February 1 or February 15 deadline for state aid, and almost all colleges won’t give you any aid without a FAFSA. Take the time to fill out the form, and check with your counselor on resources that can help.

Notify colleges of schedule changes.  It might be fine with your parents if you drop AP History for History of Pizza, but your colleges may see that move differently.  You promised your colleges—including the ones that have already admitted you—you’d keep them informed of any changes.  If you have a new schedule, you owe them an email.

Notify colleges of disciplinary changes.  This is also true if you’ve had a run-in with the school’s code of conduct since you applied to college—if you’ve been suspended, put on probation, or received some other discipline at school, you likely have to report it to all your colleges.  Talk to your counselor to make sure, and to find out the best way to handle this.

Review your admission packets.  You have until May 1 to submit an enrollment deposit at any college that’s admitted you, but some colleges require you to pay housing deposits or sign up for orientation sooner than that.  Now’s the time to re-read your admission materials, making sure you’re staying in touch with your schools.

Stay in touch with the counseling office.  The college you end up attending is going to want a final transcript, and that’s usually sent by your counselor.  Make sure you know how, and when, to let them know where you’re heading, or enrolling to college will be impossible.

Finish strong.  The best way to be college ready is to keep sharp in your high school classes.  It’s also the best way to make sure your grades don’t dive, which could lead colleges to decide maybe you aren’t all that serious about learning after all.  There’s room for senior fun and great grades; do both.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Picking a College? Don’t Do This

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Students are beginning to sort out their college choices, and make a final decision about where thy should go.  I tell my students there’s only so much data they can use in this decision, and, sooner or later, they need to turn off the data sources and follow their well-informed hearts. To support that point, here are a few ideas on what not to consider in a college decision.
A major you made up in the first place. Now that your college search is over, you can tell the truth — you really don’t know what you want to study in college. You said it was going to be Archaeology because that’s the first thing that came to mind at your college interview, or when Uncle Jim asked you in front of everyone at Thanksgiving, and, well, you couldn’t really say “I don’t know,” right?

If you’ve somehow ended up with three colleges that offer little else besides classes like From Darth Vader to Indiana Jones: A Family Tree That Needs Pruning, it may be time to re-evaluate your list, since archaeology isn’t your true calling after all. Yes, this may raise the ire of your parents, but better to tell them now than after you’ve earned a year’s worth of credits that won’t transfer.

Undecided is the most popular major for college freshmen, and with good reason. If you need time to sort out your future, pick a college that gives you that time. Uncle Jim will be pleased in the long run — more important, so will you.
Where your high school sweetheart goes. I know exactly how you feel. You can easily see the two of you together when you announce your run for the White House as the high school sweethearts whose love lasted forever. That would be great.
Here’s the thing — not all high school sweethearts go to the same college. They go to different schools, find a way to share those experiences with each other, graduate from college, and start their life together. Two different lives that are one.

It can work that way for you, too. If nursing school is their thing, you can support them — but you don’t have to go there, too. I mean, they were in marching band while you ran cross country, and that worked out, right? They follow their passions, you follow yours, and you have a rich life together through the trust you have in one another. That’s the basis of a good life, a good relationship, and a good college choice.
Money only. College A and College B both have great majors, and each campus gives you the right blend of comfort and challenge. College A is $20,000 less than College B, so you pick College A. Great.

College C is offering your buddy a full ride, but doesn’t offer either of the majors your friend wants, is in a part of the country they don’t like, and has a campus that gave them a bad feel. College D isn’t perfect and involves some debt, but your pal loves it — it’s just that College C is such a bargain.

Cost is certainly a huge part of the college decision, but it costs a lot of everything else to go to a college that gives you neither a promising future nor an exciting present. Think carefully about the money, but make a choice that wisely balances long-term financial debt with short-term personal sacrifices. That isn’t to say you should ignore cost completely, but too much of either is a bad deal.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

5 Admissions Questions to Ask on a College Tour

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

With the end of college application season, juniors are anxious to jump in to the college selection process with both feet—and that’s a good thing.  Exploration of college options is an integral part of personal growth.  If done well, it helps a student understand more about the options available to them—college and otherwise—and gives them better insights into their talents, their interests, and their needs.
One of the best ways to begin this process of self-discovery is to visit an actual college campus or two.  Online searches are great, but there’s an intuitive part of the college search that only a campus visit can fill. 

Fall or winter visits are still the best, but no matter when you go, it’s important to make the most of each visit by preparing a list of questions ahead of time that are based on your interests. ACT and College Board offer a nice set of starter questions, but you’ll want to add these five questions to any list you build:

Does my major affect my chances of admission? Students often gauge their chances of admission on college-wide information, like average GPA and overall percentage of students admitted. But some colleges limit the number of students they’ll admit to specific programs, and that could include the major you’re interested in. Engineering, honors colleges, and accelerated professional programs are the usual suspects, but the only way you know History is wide open is if you ask — and if your major is limited, ask what they’re looking for.

Do you offer residential programs? Many big colleges know some students thrive best in smaller classes where they can get to know their professors — and that’s why they offer residential programs, or living-learning communities. Often based by major, these programs typically hold classes in the student’s residence hall, which is where their professors have their offices, and many offer research opportunities students wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. It’s the best of a big and small school, all in one campus.

Do you ask what other colleges I’m applying to? Students are often surprised when colleges want to know where else they’re applying — and while most colleges don’t ask, it happens often enough that students should be ready for the question. If a college of interest tells you they do, don’t be shy; ask them what they use the information for. They may just use it for statistical purposes, but it may play a role in your admissions decision or scholarship package. It’s better you know.

Does your net price calculator include merit scholarships? The U.S. government requires all colleges to have a net price calculator on their website (can’t find it? Search for “(Name of Your School) Net Price Calculator”), but not every calculator takes the same factors into consideration when giving you a price tag. If you think a college will offer you merit money (check here to see what your college might offer), make sure you know if that’s part of the calculation, or bonus money.

Do you consider ability to pay when reviewing my application? Colleges would like to give all students the aid they need to attend, but school budgets just don’t allow for that. As a result, some schools will look at the financial need of an applicant as part of the admissions process. This changes from year to year and varies from school to school, so make sure you know what the policy is for each of your colleges—and if you get an answer you don’t understand, your very appropriate follow-up question is “what does that mean?”

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Safe Schools Report and School Counselors—What’s Next?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Amid the whirl of preparing students for December break, school counselors haven’t had the chance to digest the Federal Commission on School Safety. Counselor organizations and civil rights groups have largely responded with disappointment over what the report included, and what it didn’t include:

  • The report did recommend the removal of guidelines for school punishment policies that had been put in place by the Obama Administration. These guidelines were installed to help address the imbalance of school discipline practices that adversely affected students of color. Civil rights advocates see this as a step backward in the efforts to support underserved populations.
  • The report offered little guidance on removing guns from school, or policies to strengthen current gun control efforts. While the report also backed away from President Trump’s recommendation to arm teaches, counselor groups viewed the lack of recommendations on gun control as a huge void.
  • While mentioning the need for additional mental health resources in schools, the report did not recommend specific funding targets or service goals for either the states or the federal government.
It would be easy to see the lack of specificity in these key areas as limitations on our abilities to move local efforts forward in school safety. At the same time, the simple presence of a national report on school safety is more than enough to fuel counselor efforts to begin local discussions on this important issue. This is particularly true if counselors keep these key points in mind:

  • The Trump Administration has long believed that education is primarily, if not solely, a state responsibility. Since that’s the case, it shouldn’t be a surprise that ED has developed a report that creates a framework for discussions the states need to fill in with programs, policies, and goals that are tailored to meet their unique needs. Since that was clearly the objective from the day the Commission was created, viewing the report as an invitation for local discussion is the best way to go.
  • Safe schools is still a hot topic among state legislators and policy makers. While the Commission’s report contains no specific funding recommendations, Congress has already provided the states with additional Title IV A Funding, money that can be used for everything from offering AP classes to increasing student mental health services.  States are currently deciding just how to use that money, so now is the time to find out which agency in your state is overseeing the distribution of those funds, and make the case for using more of that new money for safe schools.
  • State funding for safe schools is still on the table. The increase in Title IV A could be reason enough for state officials to decide they don’t need to break open local coffers to support this effort.  On the other hand, elected officials who made safe schools a campaign issue at the state level could be persuaded to see the Federal money as a good start—one that needs state support to really make a meaningful difference.
  • This is a huge issue with principals. School counselors lament that principals don’t provide counseling programs with enough budget, support, or credit for the important work done to advance their building’s mental health goals.  With safe schools dominating the headlines, any principal would gladly welcome a counselor-constructed plan to advance safe schools as a department goal.  That can pay big dividends for students and counselors alike.
We often tell our students to find a way to make lemonade when life hands us lemons.  The Safe Schools report, if nothing else, gives us an opportunity to practice what we preach.