Some innovative and resourceful schools are successfully tackling the dilemma of providing students with quality guidance on college and career choices. Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher highlights a few local examples.
Best Practice How to use advisory
At Best Practice High, two counselors serve 430 students, but they are backed up by 30 teachers who keep tabs on an assigned group of students for all four years.
“That [teacher] is on top of everything that this kid is up to,” says teacher leader Mark Fertel. “When they graduate and walk across the stage, that’s who hands them their diploma.”
The arrangement has turned Best Practice’s advisory period into one of the best-functioning advisories in the city. Unlike most CPS high schools, Best Practice teachers meet with their 16 or 17 advisees every day for nearly an hour. (Elsewhere, once a week is more typical.) Advisors get to know students personally and help them with course selection from year to year.
The closeness also makes it easier to catch students headed for trouble. Best Practice teachers work in grade-level teams that meet weekly to discuss students. When a teacher has a problem with a student, he or she checks in with colleagues to pinpoint the best strategy or determine whether a parent should be called.
As a relatively new school, Best Practice had the advantage of building an advisory program from the start. Teachers were hired with the expectation that they would also be student advisors. “We didn’t have the problem of buy-in so much,” Fertel notes.
A strong advisory program frees Best Practice counselors from the overwhelming administrative duties their colleagues face at other CPS schools. Here, teacher-advisors handle class scheduling logistics and work with students to choose their courses. “It frees our counselors to counsel,” Fertel says.
North Lawndale Charter Making an investment
A tiny charter high school is making a big investment in counselors.
Principal John Horan of North Lawndale Charter High has five full-time and one part-time counselor to serve 372 students, or one counselor for every 68 kids. “It’s a big budget priority,” he says. “One counselor for 300 kids is not going to cut it.”
Counselors are responsible for individual and family counseling, and running student leadership and peer mediation programs, says Horan. “This year, one counselor’s entire job is to keep track of last year’s inaugural graduates and make sure they are succeeding in college, the military and the workplace.”
That counselor is Ramona Robertson, now director of alumni affairs. She has worked with North Lawndale’s first graduates since they were freshmen. Over the years, she has visited students and their families at home and in the hospital, and she was present when one student gave birth. “As the years progress, you get to know the families,” she says. “It facilitates better relationships.”
Last August and September, Robertson was on the road, visiting alums as they settled into college life—Clark University in Atlanta and Carleton College in Minnesota, for instance—and networking with admissions officers to help future North Lawndale graduates get into college.
“Every week I was somewhere,” she says. In January, when Robertson drove one former student to Nebraska’s Doane College, she took along eight North Lawndale students to tour the campus. “Many of our students will function better at smaller university settings, since they are used to a smaller, personal environment,” she says. “That’s one of the lessons we are learning.”
Anderson ElementaryStart early
At Anderson Elementary, counselor Elise Post organizes a career week in partnership with Women in Trades to expose girls to nontraditional occupations. She also invites Anderson graduates to talk to 8th-graders about life in high school.
Post holds these events to give kids an early opportunity to begin thinking about what they want to do and how to get there. Research shows that the classes students take in 6th, 7th and 8th grades affect whether they can take college preparatory courses in high school. Those whose parents have not been to college are most in need of guidance, says a 2001 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.
“There are a lot of very important reasons [to start early],” observes Vinetta Jones, dean of Howard University’s school of education. In middle school, students are placed on academic tracks that can open or close the doors to higher education, she adds. Guidance counselors play an important role because they decide who gets information about advanced courses, she says.
Post can spend more time counseling students because she does not manage special education students. The principal uses the school’s discretionary money to pay for a full-time special education case manager.
That’s a luxury many elementary school counselors do not have, observes Charlene Vega, who oversees pupil support services for CPS. Case managers track special education students’ individual education plans, meet with parents to discuss those plans and complete related paperwork. High schools, by contrast, often have a dedicated case manager on staff. “It is a time-consuming responsibility,” Vega notes.