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.