Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Three Remarkable Looks at School Counselors and College Access

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s been a busy year for school counselors, and much of the work we’ve done has been shared with a larger audience, thanks to Eric Hoover. A writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric focuses on college admissions and issues related to college access. He’s spent a good amount of his energies this year focusing on the role the school counselor plays in the college selection process.

That work is gaining the attention of an audience beyond school counselors. Three of his pieces are part of Eric’s nomination for an award by the Education Writers Association, and all three have been hailed for depicting life as a school counselor in ways few other pieces have conveyed our world, especially when it comes to helping students select a college.

The first piece that caught the public eye, Where the Journey to College is No Fairy Taledepicts the challenges of a school counselor in Texas who works with a high caseload of students. Since most of them are low income students, the need for financial aid is keen, and the students’ awareness of all of the logistics is limited, since most will be the first in their family to go to college.

It’s one thing to talk about the importance of going to college in broad strokes, but Eric’s piece shows the nitty-gritty of filling out the forms and chasing down the students that is the reality of bringing the theory of college application to life. It’s especially interesting that Eric reflects on the down side of the school’s college signing day program, where some students feel left out, simply because their finances are incomplete, or they haven’t heard back from their colleges yet. This is a sobering reminder that May 1 isn’t the end of the college application process for many students—and most of those students are the ones we’re supposed to be celebrating.

This same irony is revealed in Eric’s second piece, The Verification Trap. The college admissions world was taken aback this year by the dramatic increase in the number of FAFSA applicants who were asked to provide detailed verification of their financial status. Eric uses a case study approach to show how detailed this verification requests can be, and the challenges students and parents face in meeting these requests.

This piece points out the longstanding challenges of redistributive social policy in general. The goal of the policy is to provide assistance to students who need it; at the same time, those in charge of the program must confirm that those asking for the assistance really do need it. In many cases, this means the student and their family has to prove that something doesn’t exist, as the government is, in essence, saying, “Show us how much money you don’t have.” Since the skill of keeping track of resources is best mastered by actually having them, this puts special challenges on those who don’t have them. Eric’s piece captures this with keen humanity.

The Long Last Miles to College drills down on the challenge of keeping students motivated to go to college in their summer after graduation, when counselors are challenged to keep in touch with their students, and keep them on track with the tasks of attending orientation, completing more financial aid forms, and enrolling at college. Here, Eric’s work gives a face to the construct of summer melt, and brings the struggle of the students—and their counselor—to life in ways few other pieces have.

Strong investigative journalism gives readers an opportunity to look past platitudes and good intentions, and understand how policies, procedures, and life in general affects people in the real world. Eric Hoover’s writing on school counselors gives us a chance to reexamine the big picture of college access by taking a micro view of it. All three pieces are well worth the time to read in this busy time of a counselor’s year.

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.