Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Safe Schools, as Seen by School Counselors

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

During the week of March 18, counselors on two social media chatrooms were invited to participate in an online round-table discussion on school safety. Participants were given a link to respond to four questions on school safety, where their remarks were based on the practices that are part of their current institution.

Over 300 counselors participated from across the country. A summary of their responses is below.

One of the many aspects of a safe school is the atmosphere of the school that fosters sound mental health.  What programs, products, or services does your school utilize to build a strong atmosphere of mental health?

Responses here focused on specific programs (OK2Say, Be Nice, Positive Behavior Support, MindPeace, Peer Mentoring, After-School Groups) as well as partnerships with local community health resources. Many schools address this topic through a Life Skills class, while others identified the support offered by school counselors, social workers, and psychologists.

Another aspect that promotes safe schools are physical arrangements that are thought to avoid threats to a school's well-being (this would include door guards, doors that lock on the inside of the room, and metal detectors).  What updates or changes have you made to your building's physical plant to protect against a threat before it happens?

The most common response here was updated doors that lock from the inside. A distant second was video cameras, creating a single point of entry for the building. Motion sensors, upgraded front door security, and metal detectors. It should be noted that a significant number of responses indicated no updates had been made for years, and respondents felt at risk in their buildings as a result.

Some schools have made changes to their building's physical plant that are designed to
protect members of the school community once a threat is in progress (this would include safe rooms, communication networks, etc).  What procedures, products, or changes in policy have your school made to address this issue?

The most frequent response to this question, by far, was “nothing”, and more than one respondent indicated concern with this lack of action. Other responses included ALICE training, text message plans, PA/Intercom communication, panic buttons in each room, Safe Room strategies, and practice drills.

If there was just one thing the US Department of Education should do to support safe schools, what would that be, and why should the Department do this?

Respondents clearly felt more funding for mental health professionals was the first priority. This was followed by funding for smaller class sizes, improved gun laws, and funding for improvements to physical safety, including money for more security personnel. More than a few respondents urged the Department not to allow teachers to be armed.
Out of all of the responses, the one that clearly troubled most counselors was how little was being done at their particular school to advance safety efforts. It should come as no surprise that school counselors think one of the keys to safer schools is to hire more counselors; but the number of counselors who expressed genuine fear that their schools were carrying on like it was business as usual for the last several years was very compelling.

With state legislatures reviewing plans on making safer schools, now is the time for a quick phone call or email to your state or regional ASCA and NACAC affiliate, asking them what they are doing to promote school safety in your state, and how you can help. Yes, we’re all busy; unfortunately, we need to get busier.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

You Are Number Three on the Waitlist

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

“Counseling office, Patrick O’Connor.”

“Is this Dr. O’Connor?”

“Yes it is.”

“This is Mrs. Tremont, Gloria’s mother.”

“How are you?”

“Absolutely in a dither, Dr. O’Connor.  Here it’s mid-April, and Glory doesn’t have a single college to choose from!”

“She doesn’t?  I seem to remember she was admitted to Northeast Michigan, Starview College, and Whetherfield.”

“Well yes, but that was last fall, and those are all her safety schools.  I’m talking about the colleges she really wants to go to.  You know, those schools that just released their admissions decisions last week.”

“Oh.  I see.”

“She’s been waitlisted at five of them, and denied at the other fourteen.”

“Well now.”

“She is devastated, and I’m just wondering if there’s anything you can do to move her onto the accepted list.”

“Anything I can do?  Like what?”

“Well, for starters, can you tell me where she is on the waitlist at each college?”

“Where she is?”

“Right.  I mean, it’s a list, so where is she on the list at, say, Henley?”



“She’s third.”

“Really?  Third?  On the waitlist?  That’s wonderful.  Did the college tell you that?”

“Not directly, no.”

“Then, how do you know?”

“Well, when I look at her GPA of 4.2 and her ACT score of 32, and consider she was captain of the volleyball team as well as a participant in the Fremont Summer Program, I’d say she’s well above the…”


“I’m sorry?”

“Her—her GPA isn’t a 4.2.  It’s 3.2.”

“Oh.  Right.”

“And her ACT score was 25, not 32.”

“Oh, right—I see.   I thought the 32 was her ACT score, but it’s her GPA.”

“I imagine that changes things.”

“It does, but at least she was the captain of the volleyball team—”

“In eighth grade.  Does that count?”

“Well, a little, but certainly not as much.”

“She did attend Fremont.  For two summers.”

“And that certainly helps.”

“So, realistically, her chances of getting off a waitlist is hard to tell?”

“I’m afraid so.  I can see it happening, but given the number of students on the waitlist, it’s probably going to come down to which admitted students turn down their offers, and what needs the college has based on who’s said no.”

“You mean, like, where they live, what they want to major in, and if they play the bassoon?”

“Things like that are often a factor, and the trouble is, a college can’t tell what it needs until they hear back from all the students.”

“So Glory was right.  This really is out of our control.”

“Not completely.  Unless the college requests otherwise, Glory should write the colleges and express her continued interest in attending.  If she has a first choice that she’ll attend for sure, she should say that—but she can only have one first choice.”

“That’s a wonderful idea.”

“I’ve also contacted the colleges to let them know of Gloria’s continued interest.”

“Does she know that?”

“She does now.  She’s here in the office with me.”

“See, Mom!  I told you I’d done everything I could.”

“Glory!  Well, of course I believed you, but…”

“But you wanted to double check?  I already told you everything Dr. O’Connor just said.”

“Yes, you did.”

“That’s why I asked Dr. O’Connor to tell you I was third on the waitlist.”

“You mean, you weren’t?”

“I told him that’s the only way he would get your attention.”

“And you were right.  Such a wise girl.”

“Wise and more than ready for college, Mrs. Tremont.”

“You think so, Dr. O’Connor?”

“College, and beyond.”

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

So, You Don’t Really Want More Counselors?

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Last week’s blog outlined the incredible opportunity counselors have been given to get the one thing they have asked for more than anything else—more counselors. After years of begging, pleading, and even crying, there’s now a window of opportunity for counselors to ask state officials to use a Federal grant to hire more counselors, and bring down the ratios counselors claim to be THE reason why they can’t get more done with students.

The response to this news has been astonishingly skeptical. Let’s break it down.

Claim: Congress didn’t mean for that money to be used to hire more school counselors.
Response: They sure did. By almost tripling the amount of money in a grant program known as Title IV Part A, Congress opened the door for states to use the money for services that would strengthen schools. This includes things like offering AP classes, improving STEM classes, adding art and music courses, making schools safer, and strengthening mental health programs. An official at the US Department of Education was unequivocal; when asked if the money could be used to hire more counselors, his answer was yes.

Claim: But not all of the money is going to go to hiring more counselors.
Response: Probably not. It’s up to the states to decide what to request the money for, and given the current situation in schools, there’s a good chance many states will use most of the funds to make schools physically safer. Of course, counselors play a major role in making schools safer, and now is the time to point that out, as states develop master plans for safer schools.

Claim: But if we ask for the money, we’ll make enemies out of other groups that want the money for other purposes.
Not if the request is done the right way. It’s certainly true we’ll offend other educators and allies if counselors say “Give it all to us!” On the other hand, if we need more counselors—and we do—we’re not really serving our students by remaining silent. Making our case is part of the give-and-take of public policy, and reaching out to other groups to talk about how to use the grant gets the conversation off on the right foot. We can be nice people, and still ask for what our students need from us.

Claim: Federal money is an unreliable source of funding for jobs. It could disappear next year.
Response: All the more reason to ask for more counselors now. This funding could disappear next fiscal year (which actually starts this October), but using the current funding to hire counselors creates an opportunity to generate data on the difference these counselors make for however long the positions are funded. That data can then be used to show our state legislators the difference more counselors makes—and suddenly, we’re making a case for state funding of these positions, a source which is more stable.

Claim: More counselors won’t matter if we’re still forced to do things like schedule changes.
Response: So stop changing schedules. Most grant funding allows for the creation of conditions—so, you could say any counselors hired with these funds can’t be engaged in non-counseling duties. That creates a chance to collect data on how productive counselors are when all they’re doing is working with students—and more data to argue for continued state funding of counselors.

When we work with students, we know all solutions have multiple parts. More counselors may be just part of the solution, but it’s a big part. Don’t look past this tremendous opportunity.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Help Wanted: 10,000 New School Counselors

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

You may need to sit down for this.

The federal budget that was signed into law last week includes a $700 million increase in the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant, a program that, among other things, allows states to use federal money to hire more school counselors.  This is a pretty big deal, because this nearly triples the size of this grant—and an increase like this leaves plenty of room for new, and big, ideas.

If all of this increase went to hiring new school counselors, we’d be welcoming 10,000 colleagues to our schools this fall.  That wouldn’t bring the national student-counselor ratio down to 250, but it sure would move things in the right direction—and it could lead to some discussions on throwing in some state money to hire even more counselors.

This is a huge step in the right direction, but there’s are other steps to take, and soon.  These grants can also be used for other school needs, like AP classes, STEM education, and the creation of safer schools, a topic that’s on everyone’s mind right now.  Since these are state-based grants, it’s up to each state to decide how to spend their share of the money—and, like most things, those people will use their best judgment on how to spend the money, unless the public steps in to offer their ideas.

You’ve got some work to do.  Your first step is to figure out who decides how this money is spent in your state—the legislature, your governor, your state department of education, or someone else.  There’s a good chance the government relations contact of your state or regional affiliate of the National Association for College Admission Counseling knows, so that could save you some time.

Once you know who makes the decision, it’s time to meet.  They’ll likely ask you to submit comments in writing, and that’s fine—but even if they do, try and get a meeting.  Bring colleagues from other districts along, and do your homework—what’s your state’s student-counselor ratio now, what would change in your school if you had another counselor, and what data is out there to show counselors really make a difference.

Need help with this last one?  Prepare a packet (that includes your contact information) that has copies of:

      o      This piece, where Colorado spent $16 million over 5 years to hire more counselors, leading to a 60% decrease in dropouts, a double-digit increase in college attendance, and an increase in CTE participation of over 100%-- all leading to a savings of over $300 million in social costs;
        o   This comprehensive review of the difference schools counselors make in everything from social and emotional development to academic achievement to college attainment to safe schools.
    ​o       Since it’s expected state policy makers will spend most of this money on safe schools, it’s very important to talk about the ways counselors can create safer schools.  This summary from North Carolinashows how counselors have long been viewed as leaders in the creation of safe schools, and this report from West Virginia shows

“Health and mental health care services can play an important role in violence prevention at all levels (primary, secondary and tertiary), including preventing problem behaviors from developing; identifying and serving specific, at-risk populations; and reducing the deleterious effects of violence on victims and witnesses.” (take a look at footnote 17).

Bring your stories, bring your data, and bring your love for kids.  You’re the expert here, and your job is to make them respect that, and soon.

There will likely be other groups advocating that the money be spent for other things, and it’s important to have that discussion—but this is no time to back away from this exceptional opportunity.  And sure, it’s likely we won’t get 10,000 new counselors out of this—but even if we get half, that’s progress.

I often hear from school counselors about how much better their service to students would be, if we just had more counselors working with kids.


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

A Better Way to do Scheduling? Take it Away From Counselors

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Here in the Midwest, the beginning of the high school basketball playoffs are upon us, and the last of the potential snow days flirt with our hopes that we could earn one more unexpected, but badly needed, day off. This means only one thing—it’s time for scheduling for next year.

The debate over the value of school counselors doing scheduling is legendary. School administrators argue (generally with a wry smile) that academic planning and postsecondary planning are integral parts of a counselor’s work—and what better way to make sure those plans are on track than for counselors to meet with students to plan their schedules for next year?

It turns out there actually is a better way to do this, and that is through the advisory system. Long used with tremendous success by private schools, the advisory system is centered on a regular meeting between the adviser (usually a teacher) and about 15-18 students. These meetings occur as often as once a week, and are run using a school wide advisory curriculum, so busy teachers don’t have to find things to keep their advisees amused, and so certain school wide tasks can get done with greater efficiency—like scheduling.

Many public schools tried the advisory system about 40 years ago. Most schools called it a homeroom, and since the number of students in each homeroom was closer to 30 than 15, the success of these efforts was minimal—especially since most schools didn’t invest in a creating a schoolwide curriculum ahead of time. The end result was a well-meaning disaster.

This is where you come in. If counselors ever needed more partners in the implementation of the school counseling curriculum, it’s now. Too many kids with so many needs, combined with ever-growing administrative duties counselors were never meant to do, all spell out the need for you to take on the task of creating a support system for kids that’s more than just you. You need to shape the advisory system in your school.

This is less hard than you might believe. ASCA and other groups have armloads of resources for how to run an effective advisory—and if your administrator balks at the idea, point out these advantages:

More efficient communication Websites and emails aren’t reaching students the way they used to, and texting should be saved for special occasions. Regular advisory meetings give schools the chance for a caring adult to look at students in the eye and relay important messages, from news about prom to discussions about campus safety, with a directness administrators will delight in, and students will find refreshing.

Better academic advising More advisers working students through the nuts and bolts of scheduling in the winter—and more important, schedule changes in the fall—means your time and expertise will help students make better decisions about what to take, when to switch a class, and how it relates to the bigger picture. If a student needs to see you for a serious discussion about life after high school, you now have the time for one.

A stronger community affect Advisers and advisees can’t help but get to know each other better through the advisory system. That means one more pair of eyes and ears has the time to focus on the development and well-being of a student, since advisory isn’t about teaching—it’s about growing. A little training of teachers helps them know when a mental health professional’s skills are needed. The creation of an advisory system puts them in a position to help students access those skills at the right time.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Painful, Important Reminder of Dear White Counselor

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

She had never met her school counselor, but that didn’t keep her from bursting into his office once the bell rang.

“I know what I want to do with my life!” the student said, excitement in her eyes.  “I want to go to college to become a musician in a jazz band.”

The counselor turned sized up the student, and drew in his breath.  “Shows what you know”, the counselor said.  “You don’t have to go to college to join a band—you just join one!  Lucky thing for you.  No college in its right mind would take you.”

Undeterred—or, perhaps motivated in an odd way by the counselor’s remarks, the student went on to graduate high school and go on to college.  After earning a degree in music, she returned to her hometown, where she became the school’s choir director, and went to school at night to earn a Master’s degree.  Her timing was perfect; she completed her last class one June, just as the man who had served as her school counselor announced his retirement.

She was able to take his job, you see, because her Master’s degree was in Counseling.

We’d like to think these days are behind us as a profession, but then there’s Dear White Counselor, the narrative poem of a student of color who jumped into his school counselor’s office with a list of colleges he wanted to apply to, only to watch the counselor rip up the list, and suggest the student get more “realistic.”  As you can imagine, the student went on to high academic achievement at some pretty powerful colleges.

These two stories are gentle reminders that the lone key to successful counseling is humility.  Years of experience may tell us a student and his true love are likely to break up by prom, that cosmetology isn’t really going to work out for the student who has their heart set on it, and that the student with a B average isn’t likely to get admitted to the college of their choice.  But this real-life certitude doesn’t excuse us from treating our clients with anything but dignity.  It also shouldn’t let us forget the element of surprise.

Both of these qualities are essential in building a strong relationship with our clients.  “You’ve picked a pretty great college to apply to, and I’m sure they’ll enjoy reading your application.  What exactly do you like about this school?  I ask, because they have way more students apply than they have room to admit, so I’d like us to think of some other schools that offer the same things you’re looking for in a college, just in case.”

Reads a little better than “no college in their right mind will take you,” doesn’t it?

If this sounds like we’re being less than honest with the student, it’s time to remember the students who got in despite the odds.  College admissions isn’t an automatic decision based solely on grades and test scores, especially at high demand colleges; that’s why they ask for letters of recommendation and essays.  The right phrase, the right life experience, the right amount of support at the right time can lead a college to decide a student is worth taking a chance on.  That usually creates so much joy in the student, they don’t come back to the counselor and say “I told you so.”  But sometimes, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

As we approach the release of spring decisions, it’s helpful to remember we’re not school counselors; we’re school counselors of students.  I can’t wait to be surprised. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Scheduling Season—A Time for Quality Counseling

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The last of the schedule changes for this year is in the rear-view mirror, just in time for school counselors to embrace yet another task that isn’t exactly counseling—scheduling for next year. Most administrators are convinced this is what we mean when we talk about college and career advising. In some ways, they have a point—it’s a little tough to be college ready if you don’t graduate from high school—but there is little in the school counselor training manual that addresses how to have meaningful conversations with students whose entire goal in scheduling is to end up with the same lunch period as their friends.

School counselors are champions at making the most of awkward situations—after all, who else can turn lunch duty into a meaningful affective dialogue? That’s why it’s important to see annual scheduling as an opportunity to check in with students, reaffirm their goals, and give them a chance to take direction of their lives. As we do so, here are two questions we often have to field from students who may not be thinking as long-term about their lives as they could be:

Do I have to take any more (fill in the subject area here)? High school graduation requirements are designed to make sure students are exposed to a broad array of ideas and activities, where the goal is to give them a greater understanding of the world around them, and some insights into what they might want to explore more deeply. That can be hard to remember this time of year, as student after student rolls into the office to ask “Am I done with Science?”, or, “Do I really have to take any more French?”

It would be easy to see this as a student who is just tired of being stretched, of someone who would rather slouch home and devote their remaining hours to the pursuit of a video game or six. Another way to see this would be to recognize that you are looking at a student who has taken a long, deep look at the world of Science or French, and decided it isn’t for them—they are now eager to begin the pursuit of understanding a new part of the world. This is not the time to bemoan a match that wasn’t made in heaven; it’s time to find a better one. Check the student’s plans for life after high school (remembering that many colleges like to see two years of language, and many prefer to see more), be sure they are making an informed choice, and look forward to what’s next.

Do I have to keep up the trombone? This is also the time when students start to evaluate their electives and their extracurricular activities. The cool activity they just couldn’t live without in middle school has lost its shine, but they’ve heard colleges really like to see commitment to some core extracurriculars. They turn to you to know if they have to be miserable for the next two years, or if they get their life back. No pressure here.

In many ways, this is the same situation as giving up French. Colleges do like to see students commit to a few core activities and grow in them (by becoming part of an award-winning robotics team, or getting a promotion at work), but it’s unlikely a student will rise to new levels of leadership if their heart just isn’t into it. Junior year is no time to join seven new clubs—the colleges will see right through that—but if it’s time to grow, it’s time to go.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Want Students College Ready? Let Them Miss Class

By:  Patrick O'Connor   Ph.D

About 40 principals and counselors attended the Principals/Counselors at ED event held this week at the US Department of Education (there’s more about the event here), and had the chance to spend a day talking about how principals and counselors can work together to make sure students are ready to take on their roles as college students and workers once high school is over.

The day had some unexpected topics of discussion that were clearly related to the main point, including several conversations on how to instill the qualities, or character traits, known to make students make the most of college, and known to make workers invaluable assets to their companies. ​To the surprise of no counselor on the planet, these are the same qualities that make for healthy individuals who contribute meaningfully to relationships and communities, a reminder that the three main areas of a counselor’s work are not only interrelated; they are the same thing.

The aspects of preparation for life after high school that were covered include:

The nature of the assignments students are given  The work of keeping a college schedule together requires sound judgement, problem solving, initiative, and creativity—the same qualities needed to be an effective employee. If that’s the case, the assignments students are given in school should give them the opportunity to test drive these skills, see how they feel, and fine tune them along the way, with each assignment requiring a little bit more of the student to create the structure.

Some teachers are adept at doing this, but these assignments usually come as the dessert at the end of a heavy meal of lecture and multiple choice testing. If this becomes the main course, students are more likely to take the lead in their learning and in their lives, once they’re shown how to do so. As an example, telling students it’s important to be active citizens is one thing; giving them an assignment to do something for three hours that improves the US government puts their skills to the real test. Students want school to be more real. It’s up to us to deliver on that need.

The structure of the school day I used to teach math, and managed to get teaching assignments that never had anything to do with trigonometry. That’s a really good thing for my students, because even though I made it through college calculus, I don’t remember a thing about trig. I had Pre-Calculus every day after lunch in tenth grade, and since I tended to eat a little too much, most of Pre-Calc was spent in a, shall we say, quasi-attentive state of mind.

That’s just one of the reasons so many schools are going to rotating schedules, where students don’t have every class at the same time every day. It’s also why every class doesn’t meet every day—it gives students a chance to rest, let new ideas really sink in, and begin the work with new focus.

Combine that with the FLEX period presenter Scott Crisp has at his school, and things get really interesting. This daily open period allows students to get extra help in a class if they need it, or see the counselor if they need to— but students have to plan these free periods ahead of time. Managing free time is one of the main reasons students succeed in college. This schedule gives them a rare chance to practice that essential skill.

Don’t want to come to class? OK Scott’s school also offers about a dozen classes where students who are doing well in the class don’t have to come to class every day. If they’re earning an A or B in, say, History, and they have a Math test to study for, they can go to an assigned study area and do that instead. This leads to more practice in decision-making and time management, key soft skills for college and work.

Principals/Counselor at ED was an important reminder that counselors are an essential part of the leadership team that builds a college- and career-going atmosphere in their building. While some of that role involves delivery of direct services, much of it involves supporting other educators to create an atmosphere where the postsecondary skills are taught that make all the difference in a smooth transition to life after high school. That’s an important part of our work that deserves more attention.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Keep the Counselor Celebration Going with a Principal Summit

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

If social media is any measure, National School Counseling Week is becoming one very serious party. From counselor breakfasts to selfies with students to gorgeous pictures of the School Counselor of the Year celebration, word is spreading about the power of this week, and the many ways school counselors empower students. One counselor even took to social media to describe the awe he felt when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called him to thank him for his work. That’s a moment a counselor just won’t forget.

In addition to phone calls and thank-you tweets, the Department of Education is debuting a new program next week for school counselors. For many years, the Department has sponsored a series of workshops called Principals at ED. Presented at the Department offices in Washington, these professional development opportunities give principals an opportunity to learn about the latest trends in school administration, and give Department officials an opportunity to hear from practitioners in the field about the real issues that affect their work.

Principals at ED takes a new turn next week in sponsoring Principals and Counselors at ED, a one-day workshop designed for principals and counselors. The goal is to present the best practices in college and career readiness—what events, procedures, and approaches create a building-wide atmosphere that gives students the best possible understanding of all of their options for life after high school. A similar program was presented in Michigan, where over 100 principal-counselor pairs were able to evaluate their readiness strategies, and leave the day with practical ideas on what they could do to make their building even more supportive of college and career opportunities.

This first national effort is sold out, and attempts to live stream it are still underway—but even if you’re not able to watch this initial effort, you can make the most of this PD opportunity by asking yourself the same questions that will be presented with each session:

Developing a Strong Counselor-Principal Relationship A rich body of research shows that the college-career tone of a building is best set by a strong counselor-principal team, who share a common set of college and career goals, and communicate often.

College Board’s research on strong principal-counselor bonds is a great place to begin, but the first step in a stronger relationship is often self-reflection. If there was one thing your principal could do to build a strong college-career-going atmosphere in your building, what would it be? If your principal was asked the same question about what you could do, what would they say?

Developing a Career and College Going Culture Long gone are the days when the counseling office is the only place where the college-career curriculum is presented. Teachers, coaches, club sponsors, and community members have to play an active role in sharing and reinforcing the postsecondary message. Do you have a Counseling Advisory Committee? If so, when’s the last time they met?

Supporting High School Students During the Day Life after high school is going to include more learning for everyone. What can teachers do to make sure students develop attitudes towards learning that will transfer to their college and career life?

Utilizing Data Effectively Everyone has data, but what’s the best data to use to make sure students are college and career ready? How do we best assess our efforts? Are we disaggregating in to make sure all students are benefitting from our work?
It’s great to have your work honored this week. Now is the time to build on that support and attention, so your work can be more powerful in the weeks

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

National School Counseling Week: It’s OK to Celebrate Yourself

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s gratifying to see that National School Counseling Week is finally gaining traction among some key groups. Thanks in large part to the support school counselors received from Michelle Obama during her time as First Lady, National School Counseling Week and the related School Counselor of the Year ceremony have an elevated place in the national consciousness, helping everyone remember the vital role school counselors play in the lives of students, families, and communities.

It’s one thing for NSCW to enjoy the national spotlight, but what about its role at the local level? While some PTAs and other parent groups have Teacher Appreciation Month on their radar, NSCW can still be an elusive event, especially since it’s celebrated so close to Valentine’s Day, which is every parent leader’s favorite holiday. I’ve talked to too many school counselors who are actually conflicted about raising awareness of NSCW. “It’s like reminding my spouse about our anniversary” one counselor said. “If I have to ask them to celebrate me, is it really genuine?”

Yes. The answer is yes.

Look—school counselors spend an incredible amount of time teaching students to self-advocate. You don’t understand the homework? Here’s how you ask the teacher. It really bothers you when your brother makes fun of you? You can talk to him in a way that will make a difference. Making sure kids grow in claiming the part of the world that’s theirs is likely the single biggest thing we do. Why aren’t we showing them by example?

One counselor told me they don’t mention NSCW because they’re afraid their principal will go overboard. “I don’t want an assembly, or a sheet cake. To be honest, a sincere thank you would really be great.”

I don’t want to burst anybody’s bubble, but as a former school administrator, I can tell you that’s what you will likely get. Principals are incredibly busy people, and that’s why they need people like secretaries—and counselors—to make sure they’re current on what they should be doing, and who they should be talking to. Principals also know that if they hire a DJ and throw a NSCW breakfast, that sets a precedent for Administrative Professionals Day, National Paraprofessional Week, and—well, you get the idea. Principals value what everyone in the building does; they just don’t have time to cook for all of them. Mention NSCW to them, and you can reasonable expect a short, personal visit, a card, and maybe a donut. That's a good day. 

So step up, in two ways. A reminder to your principal about next week is timely right now, since it gives them the weekend to make plans. In addition, join your colleagues across the country to celebrate your work. Grab a student, take a selfie, and tell the Twitter world why you love being a counselor. Throw #NSCW18 in your description, then take a look at the pictures of other school counselors. You’ll feel more supported, less isolated, and honored.

Mission accomplished. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A New Approach to FAFSA Completion—Want Prom? Complete FAFSA!

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

There’s been a lot of exciting changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Thanks to some insightful planning, FAFSA can now be completed as early as October 1 of a student’s senior year in high school, and most of the financial information it asks for is already on file with the IRS, if the student’s family filed taxes in the previous year. This means students are more likely to know how much Federal aid they’ll get for college—and knowing more about your college budget can make a big difference in the college application process…

...provided, of course, the student completes the FAFSA. If they don’t fill out the form, they can’t get the information—or cash—they need for college.

This is a bigger challenge than you might think—after all, as adults, if someone wanted to give us cash just for filling out a form, we’d fill out twelve of them. But students don’t always pay attention to the cash part of college as much as they should; for some reason, they see this as Mom and Dad’s job. That means the real challenge is either to get the parents to complete the FAFSA, or to get the student to get the parents to complete the FAFSA.

This is where things get tricky. School counselors usually don’t see parents on a daily basis, so it’s harder to nudge them into action. In addition, many parents whose students would qualify for Federal aid are hesitant to complete the form, for all kinds of reasons. A program like College Application Week makes it easy enough to get a student out of class, sit them down, and help them complete an application for college. But can you do the same thing with parents and the FAFSA?

It’s time for some fresh ideas. Some offices are tying FAFSA completion workshops to parent-teacher conferences or sporting events, and those are having some effect. It’s even been suggested—but to be clear, not tried yet—that a high school could contact a local restaurant and build a FAFSA Completion Party to Happy Hour. High schools are already asking local merchants for door prizes for events held at high school (“Complete the FAFSA, Win a Big Screen TV”). Celebrating FAFSA completion by buying the next round isn’t all that much of a n additional stretch.

Another approach that’s been underserved is focusing on students. There are some key components of the high school experience no senior wants to live without. If there was a way to tie FAFSA completion to some, or any, of those events, there’s a good chance more seniors might hear the FAFSA gospel. While some of these key activities vary from school to school, what about:

  • Tying FAFSA completion to schedule changes. Want a different class? Great—have you finished your FAFSA?
  • Connecting tickets to the Fall Dance (Homecoming) or even Prom to FAFSA completion. You can say yes to the dress (or tux) as soon as we see your FAFSA receipt.
  • Permission to participate in an event outside of school. Students at my first high school were really into hunting. Imagine what would happen to FAFSA completion rates if the only way students were excused for hunting season was by finishing their financial aid forms.
There are undoubtedly other ideas out there, but you get the idea. Every high school has a “thing” that is THE event of senior year. If the ticket to that event is tied to the ticket to their college future, FAFSA completion will soar with ease.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Report on Bottom Line—What Does It Mean for School Counselors?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Social media has been abuzz this past month with the results of a new study on college counseling by

Andrew Barr and Benjamin Castleman. The study looks at the work of Bottom Line, an organization that offers individualized college counseling to high school students, then follows up that counseling with assistance and mentoring during the college years. Bottom Line reports that the college completion rate of their students is impressive—a whopping 80% of the last three cohorts have earned a college degree in six years or less.

The new study looks behind the curtain of Bottom Line’s success, suggesting that some of the keys to the success of the program lie in the ability of counselors to match students with colleges that will meet their individual needs, all without requiring the student to take on extraordinary debt.  Since cost and persistence have long been recognized as two key elements in earning a four-year degree, it should come as no surprise that a college counseling program that helps students keep costs low, and gives students the tools to keep going in college, will lead to greater student success.

This success is worth celebrating, and it leads to a logical question—if Bottom Line can realize this kind of success with its students, can the program be replicated with more students?  Barr and Castelman see the program as highly scalable, and social media commentators feel the key elements to Bottom Line’s success lies in three key areas:
  • Counselors work with very small caseloads
  • Counselors stay focused on the goal of matching students with affordable colleges that have high completion rates
  • Counselors are deeply familiar with the colleges in their local area that meet these criteria
Since Bottom Line is a program that is not school based, it’s easy to see the challenges school-based counselors could face if they were asked to replicate Bottom Line’s model.  The bugaboo of high ratios is the easiest challenge to recognize.  With an average of nearly 500 students per school counselor in the US, it’s easy to see how Bottom Line’s level of service might be hard to match without a significant investment in more school counseling positions.

Beyond that, the nature of a school counselor’s work might also prevent replication of Bottom Line’s achievements.  College counseling is all Bottom Line’s counselors do, while college counseling is one of myriad official duties assigned to most school counselors.  In addition, most counselors are charged with duties that have little, if anything, to do with their counseling expertise—duties like scheduling, standardized test administration, and supervision of individualized learning programs for students with special needs.  While the counselor’s voice is important in all of these activities, putting them in charge of them gives the work more of a feeling of an administrative burden that prevents them from utilizing their counseling skills.  

Finally, it’s important to recognize that some of the lack of success in college counseling is due to the lack of sufficient training counselors receive on the subject in graduate school.  Of the 12-15 course common to most counselor graduate programs, only one focuses on postsecondary counseling—and that course typically has a split focus between college and career counseling.

With less than 3 dozen graduate programs offering focused training in college counseling, it’s no wonder most counselors begin their work with students with background and insight that make it impossible to replicate the efforts of Bottom Line.  Logistical challenges may abound, but too many students see their counselors as lacking important information that can make a difference in college selection.  That’s the right place to begin to impact their own bottom line.