Wednesday, May 27, 2020

What We Aren’t Learning From the Quarantine

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s a little awkward to say crisis brings out the best in us, but history is replete with examples of exactly that. A country in depression with one of the worst air defense systems in the world leads the Allies to victory in World War II once half of the planes needed to fight are made—by a car company. The polio epidemic is stanched by a researcher who finds a vaccine for the disease, then refuses to protect it with a patent, so more patients can benefit from it. You name the crisis, we know how to turn it around.

This is why hopes were running so high at the start of our current quarantine. Within a week—sometimes within a day—of governors closing schools, K-12s and college responded with remote versions of learning that were far from perfect, but not too shabby. Their value has started to fade as spring arrived, but then again, name a physical classroom where instructional quality was better in May than it was in March.

Hopes ran high for even greater successes as a result. If we can put learning on remote platform this quickly, the thinking went, imagine what we can do if we see this pandemic as a chance to right the inherent wrongs of our educational systems, rethink the whole thing, and finally have our educational act together by fall of 2021.

It’s too soon to speak with any authority whatsoever about what’s going to happen fifteen months from now—what teacher imagined what would happen on March 15 if they had been asked about it January 15—but the early signs are suggesting a longing for business as usual. A recent poll of college presidents shows 50 percent of those asked are working on a plan to have campus-based classes this coming fall, and K-12 districts are diligently working on some kind of plan where remote learning plays a minimal role in instruction.

Neither group can be blamed; colleges know there’s really no reason for parents to spend $50,000 to have their kids take online classes from the family living room, and K-12 remote classes only work in large part due to the presence of parents working from home, a situation that can’t last forever. But these plans are largely based on the assumption that we’ve looked at how we’re teaching our students, and decided that the best way to move forward is to stay anchored in the past, an assumption that wasn’t as universally accepted before the pandemic.

It’s clear the strategy for this Fall then, is a combination of Ford’s answer to World War II, and Jonas Salk’s cure of polio—let’s use a completely remote learning model (something colleges were never meant to do) to kill time, hoping that some research chemist will find a cure for the virus, and be willing to give it away for free. With that in place, the plan for fall of 2021 comes into focus—we can finally go back to the way we used to do things.

If that’s the only lesson we’re going to learn from school from afar, we’ve earned a failing grade. Remote learning has required those with less to fall even farther behind, and our clinging to dated models of what college is continues to be a disservice to the 60 percent of college students who neither live on campus nor go right to college once they’re 18. 

If these experiences aren’t enough for us to try and make something better out of this time of crisis—this opportunity for growth—it makes one wonder what it will take for us to decide something better in the classroom really matters.

Here’s hoping time proves me wrong.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Early Advice for Juniors Applying to College

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Leave it to our friends at Common Application to provide a little good news—and a lot of stability—to the college application world, just when both are desperately needed.Last week, Common App announced the addition of another essay question to this fall’s application:

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.

This 250-word essay is completely optional, and applicants won’t be penalized if they choose not to use it. Still, the presence of this space meets two needs at the same time:

  • Juniors can talk at length about any disruptions they’ve had in their college search as a result of the quarantine.This gives them space to talk about first (or second) test dates that got cancelled, summer plans for classes or internships that had to change, campus tours that never happened, any impact this has had on their grades due to changes in the way classes were delivered—and more.
  • It gives them the chance to answer the remaining essay prompts without referring to the quarantine.One of the rules of good essay writing is “if it’s somewhere else in the application, don’t write about it.”Once a student provides a full accounting of how the quarantine has required them to reroute their college search, they can use the other essay topics to get back to the business of showing colleges who they are, what they think about, and more.With so many colleges going test optional next year, these narratives will become more important than ever.Thanks to Common App, that importance doesn’t have to be watered down.

The key to using this new prompt successfully is to make sure juniors understand how to make the most of it.This isn’t the space to talk about poor ninth grades, or spraining a wrist during sophomore softball season.Neither of these events were affected by the quarantine, so if they end up in the application, they go somewhere else—students should not see this as an extra 250 words to talk about whatever they wish.

The harder challenge will more likely lie in having students minimize their discussion of the quarantine in other essays.Mentioning the quarantine too often has the potential of weakening the impact of the student’s response to the quarantine prompt; it can also give the colleges the feeling that the student has no real answer for the other prompts, if all they want to talk about is the quarantine. The focus of the other essay questions remains the same—showing the college who the student is.It’s vital that they understand how, in a season of great change, this goal remains the same.

Some counselors are also considering sharing this Common App prompt with all their seniors, including those who may not be applying to college through Common App. By getting a written response from all students, the counselor has the option of including the student’s response in the counselor’s letter to the colleges. This emphasizes the effect of the quarantine to those colleges that require Common App; it gives all other college the context needed to evaluate the applicant’s college readiness. Either way is a win for the student, and for the college—the more information they can share with each other in this uncertain year, the better.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Budget Cuts Are Back. Here’s What to Do.

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

A new threat is building on the counseling horizon, and you’re going to need to get ready for it. The good news is that this is not a new nemesis; we’ve seen it before, we know what it does, and we’ve battled it before. The bad news is, it’s back and bigger than ever.

Yup. Budget cuts.

Congress is working hard to support states and schools with supplemental grants designed to take the sting out of all of the changes they’ve had to face during the quarantine. Unfortunately, many of these funds are earmarked specifically for tasks like distance learning, and the remaining money isn’t nearly enough to cover the cost states have to deal with when there’s an increased need for social services (when people lose their jobs) and a loss of revenue during a depression (due to stores and restaurants closing.)

The results can leave you breathless. The chair of a key budget committee in Michigan has said the state’s per-pupil budget allocation will need to slashed by 25 percent to balance the state budget. That isn’t the entire education budget, but it’s a big enough chunk that it isn’t hard to see where this is going. Budget cuts to schools, at a time when social distancing practices are already calling for smaller class sizes. That means you can’t lay off classroom teachers—so where do you cut?


Most states are in the early stages of budget discussions, but the size of the proposed cuts should be more than enough to make any school counselor nervous. When 80 percent of a budget is personnel costs, and most of those personnel are classroom teachers you have to keep on in order to make for smaller class sizes, that puts decision makers under some pretty big pressure to lay off non-classroom personnel. And that’s us.
This isn’t exactly the news counselors need to hear, especially since we’re in the middle of moving heaven and earth to support students through all kinds of challenges, with the added challenge that we can’t be in the same room with them while we try to support them.

On the other hand, it’s not like budget cuts are new turf we have to cover. Counselors are one of the groups that regularly survive fiscal scrutiny, and the strategies we’ve used in the past will help us here, too:

Use the data and the power of public opinion The quarantine has featured more than its share of stories about the challenges students and families are facing getting used to online school and life in general, and most of those stories talk about how invaluable counselors are in supporting this transition. You’re going to want to collect these stories, and add your own local examples of how your services have made a difference. Online learning is a delicate system; if getting rid of counselors is going to knock it down, they won’t do that.

Don’t rest on your laurels The programming, seminars, and support systems you’ve set up in the last two months have more than met the needs of many of your students, but “more of the same” isn’t likely to keep your job if money is tight. Experience tells us that counseling jobs are saved when we can show how we’re going to do more with less—so it’s time to put together a plan that would expand existing counseling services, especially now that you have the summer to develop them. Administrators know you already make a difference; now is the time to show them you can make even more of a difference, since that makes investing scarce budget dollars in you all the better of an investment. This isn’t exactly fair, but it’s often the difference between keeping a counselor and a program, and being one counselor who puts out fires at four different schools.

Choose your partners Counselors are often seen as easy layoff targets because the belief is we are independent agents—that the work of others doesn’t depend on our work. Any work you’ve done with classroom teachers or community mental health programs is proof your work affects more than just one student at a time. If you’ve got classroom colleagues and community partners who value what you do, now is the time to ask them to speak up.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

FAFSA Renewals Are Down. Here’s How to Help.

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

At a time where school counselors are coming to expect the unexpected, you’d think we would welcome some news we could pretty much predict. Unfortunately, that news isn’t pretty.

A new report from the National College Attainment Network shows the number of students renewing the FAFSA since late February is down about 5%. The news gets worse when the report is dissected by socio-economic status, with renewals down by over 8% among students whose families make less than $25,000 a year.

It isn’t unusual for students to not renew the FAFSA, since many of them are under the impression that they qualify for four years of financial aid by filling FAFSA out once as a high school senior. But that statistic should be relatively consistent from year to year; there’s no real reason more students would assume a “one and done” attitude this year, so that doesn’t explain the decline.

Instead, the assumption this year could be based on other, more serious factors. Students whose financial situations have changed in the last year may not realize the amount of financial aid they receive could increase, provided they tell the college their need has increased. Other students may just feel their circumstances have changed so much that there’s no point in applying, while others may be required to take some time out of school to care for family or other personal situation.

The biggest problem in reaching out to non-renewing students is that school counselors don’t typically interact with most of their students once they graduate high school. The colleges where non-renewers attend are undoubtedly reaching out to the students, but that can easily become just one more email or letter from the college, institutions that can be known to drown students in communications at peak times throughout the year. On the other hand, if a student gets a note from their school counselor, saying “What’s up with the FAFSA?”—that might be unique enough to get their attention.

It’s time for some clever thinking, and we’re just the crew to do that. Try these ideas for initial outreach:

Communicate this need to your current students and parents. You may not see your graduates on a regular basis, but many of them are the neighbors, friends, and siblings of the students and parents you work with every day. If you get the word out that you want to help kids stay in college, that news will spread. Be sure to include your contact information.

Use your old texting trees to reach out. The added challenge of working with low-income students is the lower number who have access to the Internet. Happily, more of them have cell phones—so, as long as you’ve kept your old class lists from your Remind (or other) texting accounts, you can use those to reach out with a “Remember Me?” message. This also applied to any texting trees you have for alumni parents.

Reach out to faculty, too. I continue to be amazed by the number of alumni who are still in touch with their high school teachers. If there’s ever a time to make the most of that relationship, it’s now.

Once you have your plan together, the message you want to convey is simple: Your college wants to hear from you. It’s OK if your finances have changed—tell them how, and they’ll try and work with you. It’s not unusual for finances to change from year to year—that’s why you have to file every year. If you need to change schools, that’s OK—your new school has financial aid, too, but they can only give it to you if you tell them what’s going on.

This is too great a group of students to leave to chance. Reaching out will take more effort, but they are more than worth it.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

National Signing Day is Different This Year

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Eric Hoover is at it again. The one writer in America who truly understands school counselors has written a terrific piece on the challenges counselors are facing in the quarantine age, as our work to support students continues, in spite of—or arguably, because of—the closing of the physical plants where school happens. His latest piece is here, and if you can’t get to it, sign up for the free account you need to read it. You will be inspired.

This isn’t the first time I’ve sung Eric’s praises, and his coverage of College Signing Day continues to be one of my favorite pieces of his. Where the Journey to College is No Fairy Tale talks in part about what it’s really like in a public high school on College Signing Day. How exactly do you honor all the seniors on May 1 when only half of them have firm plans for college, complete with how to pay for it? Eric spent nearly as much time at this Texas high school as the counselor did for a couple of months, and the results are worth another read. His words have, as usual, stood the test of time.

This is particularly important to remember this year, as we face College Signing Day under the most dizzying of circumstances imaginable. While May 1 has long been the day many students stake their claim to one particular college by sending in a required enrollment deposit by May 1, this date means a great deal less than it has in years past. Part of that has nothing to do with the quarantine, since the Justice Department made a ruling last fall allowing colleges to recruit students after May 1, even if they’ve committed to another school. That’s a big change in building and maintaining a freshman class, so everyone who heard the announcement last fall figured this summer was truly going to be looney tunes.

Then March came along and said, hold my mask. With college campuses closed and college funds tanked, most colleges still don’t know what the fall is going to bring, many families who thought they could afford college aren’t so sure, and students who were looking forward to their first tailgater are wondering about the merits of online learning from their couch at home over a bag of broken cheese doodles. Thinking a brief quarantine might lead to greater college clarity, about 350 colleges moved their deposit day to June 1, while many others stuck to May 1, convinced that students would be in a position to make a serious institutional commitment by then.

We’re here now, and it’s clear that nothing is clear. So what does that do to National Signing Day when 350 colleges don’t really care about May 1 anymore, most seniors don’t know how or if their college will be open in the fall, and the job and stock markets make college uncertain for many?

It means two things. First, this better be the biggest celebration of a senior class in The. History. Of. Education. Any eighteen year-old who has emerged from the last two months still in school, replete with anything resembling a plan for life after school, has shown the mettle of immortals. Unlike their predecessors, this year’s class really can lay claim to being able to do anything, since that’s exactly what they had to do to get here. If we can’t really celebrate where they’re heading, let’s celebrate how they got this far. There’s the reason we party this year.

Second, it’s going to be really important to pay attention to the seniors who are quiet during the Signing Day hoopla. This is a common concern among counselors every year, and one that Eric Hoover nicely highlights in his Texas piece. Not every student’s life is tied up with a bow on May 1, and many who are supposed to feel honored by the day don’t feel that way at all when their dream college said no, or when the money needed to go there disappeared.

If that’s the case in any given year, imagine the chaos going on in the heads of even more students this year. Getting them to buy into the brightness of the future will be an understandably tough sell, since most of them don’t really know what that future will look like. Better to focus on what they’ve done this far to keep all the many, many options open that they’ll have to sort through long after May 1, and to watch closely for the ones who are clearly uncomfortable with the uncertain. Their need for assurance doesn’t make them party poopers; it makes them human, and that is where school counselors shine.

Just ask Eric Hoover.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Now That the Online Dust is Settling

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It is very comforting to see the parent posts on social media lavishing well-deserved praise on teachers and counselors. Though few and far between, it’s clear a good number of people have figured out that this isn’t “time off” for educators. In fact, those educators with dependents at home report working and using after-dinner time to write, record, and post lesson plans, grade assignments, and respond to student requests for one-on-one time.

As we begin to find the new rhythms of this new approach to counseling, it’s interesting to read the responses of counselors, who are finding themes in online counseling that are strikingly familiar to those they experience in the building:
  • Counselors are surprised they aren’t hearing from more seniors about their college plans. This isn’t new for this time of year, as many seniors quietly enroll in the college of their choice, then get back to the business of finishing up senior year. In this case, senior silence could be due to the uncertain, where students are waiting for their colleges to announce their plans for the fall, or parents are double-checking on the affordability of the original college plan.

  • Ditto with high school juniors and their college plans. As a rule, counselors are hearing from more juniors, typically with questions about testing. Colleges are changing their SAT/ACT requirements daily—yesterday alone, four colleges announced they’re going test-optional for at least next year—so it’s easy to see why students may be feeling they are trying to hit a moving target.

  • The students who are having a hard time adjusting to change, but aren’t reaching out for help. This is a group very familiar to counselors, as students experience change and loss of all kinds when school buildings are open. Most counselors can rely on the caring hearts and students-first posture of their teaching colleagues to make sure these students find their way to the counseling office. But most of those referrals are based on cues teachers pick up by evaluating the student’s physical presence in class. That can be tough to do when instruction is online.
The solutions to these familiar patterns aren’t new—walk the halls, wander through the lunch room, check in with teachers during a break in class—so it should be no surprise counselors have created online solutions designed to replicate these approaches:
  • Online office hours, where counselors sit in an online office—through a program like Zoom, or simply by actively checking email—for an announced period of time a few times a week. Send the link to students, parents, and teachers alike, and see what happens.

  • Online coffee time for teachers. A similar idea is to hold a one-hour online time for teachers to drop in and share their new and concerns about their students. This isn’t quite the same as an in-person concern, but if a teacher has picked up an online vibe that a student has needs, this gives them a clear, safe space to discuss it.

  • Production of a weekly newsletter/video. The college needs of juniors and seniors can largely be anticipated at this time of year, and covered in a one-page newsletter, or a two-minute video. I just sent out a newsletter all about enrollment deposits; while only a few students have asked about them, it’s safe to say there are many unasked questions about the topic. It’s easy enough to provide advice and resources on these issues, starting with a one-size-fits-all approach.
It’s a little weird to think we’ve been in our new school approach long enough to see the emergence of familiar student needs. The good news is we have ample resources at hand to try and meet them.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

College Advice for Juniors

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Last week, we provided a list of college ideas and updates to share with this year’s seniors. This week, we turn our attention to this year’s juniors. Not all of these will apply to all students, but here’s the list:

AP Testing Schools that offer AP classes already know this year’s test has gotten a haircut. The 3 hour, multi-part test goes to a 45 -minute session of free response questions only, and it’s all online, done in the comfort and safety of home.

The big question here is if colleges will still accept the same scores for the same level of college placement or credit, and the answer is: it depends on the college. Students should find the AP page of the college’s website to check. More important, students should ask themselves if a mid-range score on a shortened AP test really tells them they’re ready for a more advanced class in college—or will they be so busy doing homework, it would make more sense taking the intro class.

SAT and ACT Testing Yes, this was covered last week, but there are new issues to consider here. With April and May testing cancelled, juniors are looking to June to fulfill their testing needs. It’s possible June testing will go by the boards as well, leaving July and August in the summer testing calendar—and those seats are always hard to come by. SAT and ACT are trying to open more test centers for the summer, so keep an eye on the registration pages for more test center options.

Meanwhile, the list of test optional colleges for next year (and in many cases, next year only) has grown significantly. The latest version is here, but even if your college isn’t on that list, call them if it looks like your testing plans aren’t going to come true. They may have other options for you.

Pass/Fail Grades for This Year High schools across the country are discussing the idea of making all classes Pass/Fail, since students won’t have a chance to catch up on work they’ve missed, or fully improve on a slow start to the term. As a rule, colleges understand this, especially since many colleges are doing the exact same thing. As long as the college knows your high school went to all Pass/Fail grades, they’re going to do all they can to work with you. Make sure you work with your school counselor to let the colleges know.

The one tricky area here is NCAA eligibility. Right now, the NCAA gives all Pass/Fail classes the lowest passing grade possible—and that’s usually a D. Since that’s going to mess up the eligibility of many athletes, high schools are urging the NCAA to come up with a new set of guidelines, which is allegedly in the making. Again, stay tuned.

Athletic Recruitment With the NCAA extending eligibility for an extra year to spring athletes already in college, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with recruiting patterns in those sports. This might be the time to reach out to the coaches of the colleges that interest you and find out.

Admissions and Deferral for This Year’s Seniors Some colleges are thinking a number of this year’s seniors will be holding off on college for a year, asking the schools that have admitted them to hold them a spot for next year. This happens all the time, but if it happens much more this year, that means some colleges get harder to gain admission next year. This is something colleges won’t likely know about until fall, so make a note and ask them then.

Early Application Programs There’s also some question if colleges offering Early Action and Early Decision programs are going to offer them again, or perhaps move their deadlines closer to December or January. Since Early programs really help a college predict enrollment, it’s unlikely a college will do away with their Early programs completely, but stranger things have happened. Again, keeping an eye on the admissions page of the college website—and checking for updates—is the way to go here.