Sunday, November 27, 2011

Online Education

I would imagine that most school counselors have seen online education options increase for their students over the last ten years.  Certainly I have seen this in my own school district--an ever growing number of courses offered, some taught by teachers within the system, some contracted to outside sources.  As I have watched this educational medium expand, I have continuously asked myself questions:  What type of student is right for online classes?  What oversight is there of these online classes?  Who pays for these courses?  Is this, in 50 years, going to be how more and more students learn versus being in a traditional classroom?

These are all questions that I feel have been coming to a head in the last year, at least in my world.  This was confirmed today by a very in-depth front-page article in the Washington Post entitled Virtual schools are multiplying, but some question their educational value, written by Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown.  In the article, they state that:
"...virtual education has evolved into an alternative to traditional public schools for an increasingly wide range of students--high-achievers, strugglers, dropouts, teenage parents and victims of bullying among them." (source: Layton and Brown,
As the authors discuss, there is quite a range of students between high-achievers and dropouts.  Does an educational medium that is traditionally self-paced and that requires a great deal of independent motivation and work the best choice for all of these different populations?  While many students may access an online class or two here or there, the article seems to be mainly discussing students who enroll full-time at these public online schools, meaning they are never in a traditional classroom.  Additionally, in the article the results for online education are decidedly mixed:
"We have no real evidence one way or another, said Tom Loveless, a brookings Institution scholar who served as a paid consultant to K12 in its early years." (source: Layton and Brown,
 "On measures widely used to judge all public schools, such as state test scores and graduation rates, virtual schools--often run as charter schools--tend to perform worse than their brick-and-mortar counterparts" (source: Layton and Brown,
The article goes on to give examples of the graduation rates of virtual schools in Colorado and Ohio, both run by K12, the nations leading provider of online education.  These rates are 12 percent in Colorado as compared with 72 percent for the state overall, and 30 percent in Ohio as compared to 78 percent for the state overall. (source:  Layton and Brown,  If those of us in traditional public schools had the same graduation rates as these online schools, we would face serious consequences under No Child Left Behind

Further explained in the article is the funding of these programs.  K12 has been able to set up virtual schools in states in large part due to heavy political lobbying as well as contributing a great deal of money to various political campaigns in these states.  In Virginia, the Virtual Virginia Academy is run by K12 (note the web address for Virtual Virginia) and is based in Carroll County.  Students in Caroll County receive $5,421 per pupil in state funding.  Here in Fairfax, students receive $2,716 per pupil in state funding.  However, when a student in Fairfax County enrolls in Virtual Virginia, K12 receives the compensation for that student based on Carroll County's numbers, thus making more money.  It should be noted that K12 is a private company, made $522 million dollars last year with a net income of $12.8 million, with its CEO making $2.6 million dollars (source:  Layton and Brown,

This topic is important for school counselors for several reasons:
  • Know which students would truly benefit from online instruction.  Not every student will be successful in an online class or online school.  Remember that this instruction tends to be independently done and independently paced.  Thus, high-achieving students who perhaps want additional classes or higher level classes that are not available in some way through your school or school district might be strong candidates.  Other strong candidates might be seniors who need just a few classes to graduate, who are fairly self-motivated, and who have a clear plan for what they will do with the extra time, whether it would be to start college classes or to work at a job.  However, students who struggle or drop-out may not be as successful--in fact, these are the types of students who generally need more contact time with teachers, school counselors, mentors, supportive peers, etc. in order to achieve.  My students that are successful with online classes are typically those who are electing to take one or two classes online as part of their overall traditional curriculum.
  • Think and talk through all of the pros and cons, educational options, and short and long term goals with students and families before deciding to enroll in an online school full-time.  In the Washington Post article, there is discussion of students who are bullied benefiting from full-time online school enrollment.  Every individual situation is different, and there may indeed be some students who ultimately benefit from an independent program of study.  However, is there not a way for the school counselor to mobilize the school community to better support that student within the school?  Again, every situation is different, and online education may be an option, but there is also a lot of value in safely working through that situation with the students involved and helping the community to build strong empathy and coping skills.  Further, sometimes school anxiety is a reason that is brought up for enrolling students in online campuses on a full-time basis.  Again, every individual situation is different and this may indeed by a strong option for some students, but therapeutically the ultimate goal would be to work with the student, therapist, and school staff to help that student transition back into a school environment, perhaps starting on a part-time basis but hopefully working back up to a full-day.  If the online instruction does not work, what options does that student and their family have to return to a traditional school?  Given state standards and curriculum, there may be a risk of that student losing credits for the full year of the online school option does not prove effective.
  • 21st century skills include problem solving, collaboration, communication, and social and cross-cultural abilities.  In the November/December issue of School Counselor Magazine, there is an article, A Critical Combination, written by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills that discusses the need for these highly-social skills in order for students to be college and career ready for the up-and-coming job market.  While online learning certainly has interactive components, it is highly unlikley that a full-time online education can replace the day-to-day social education of a school.  How do you work with someone you may not particularly like?  How do you interact with people from multiple cultures and find common ground?  Where do you learn the importance of showing up to work on time, confronting difficult situations in productive ways, and being flexible when everything does not go according to plan?  Thus, online education for part of a student's academic career may be useful, but there may be some significant educational gaps for students that are in full-time online programs.
  • Know where the online education is coming from, the effectiveness of the program, local school regulations, and the funding source.  The first place to consult is your school system--what are their policies with regards to students being in online programs?  If statistics are available, it is important to make sure that you are aware of them in order to make sure that students and families have all the information so that they can make an informed choice about their education future and options.  Is the program being run by your own school system?  Is it outsourced to a private educational company?  Does the family have to pay for the program?  The school system?  Can that student still graduate from your school even if they are doing some or all of their education online?
Online courses and schools, for better or for worse, are going to continue to be a part of the conversation about the future of education, and it needs to be, as for some students and situations it really is an option that can help students be successful and reach their goals.  We, as school counselors, need to make sure that we continue to stay abreast of these discussions, both in order to better assist our students and their families in planning a course to be career and college ready for the new 21st century models as well as to be part of the conversations as policies are developed around this medium.

The following work cited is available to members of ASCA at
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills.  (2011).  A Critical Combination: School counselors play a vital role in integrating 21st-century skills and training into the school environment.  School Counselor (November/December 2011).

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Bullying: Prevention versus Reaction

No charges will be filed in the case of Jamey Rodemeyer, the young teen who committed suicide in September after being bullied in New York state.  In the article linked above, there is discussion about the frustration that there will be no harsher punishments for those who may have contributed to the harassment that ultimately caused Jamey to take his life.  That does not, however, mean that there are no consequences for community at large.

I wrote a lengthy blog entry about this and other cases of LGBT students being bullied and harassed and the impact that school counselors can have in their communities about this issue.  Certainly, in the aftermath of a crisis such as this, we have a role to play in helping a school to heal, but I would also challenge that we have a role to play in helping the school community to learn from this experience.  There may be no punitive criminal consequences for the alleged bullies, but the hope would be that there are consequences for the greater community at large, such as:
  • A strong bullying and harassment prevention and education program for students, including a focus on cyberbullying.  This article from September discusses the impact that the website, Formsprings, which allows people to comment anonymously, was having on Jamey.  In the latest issue of School Counselor Magazine (published by ASCA), there is an article by Renee Hobbs entitled Digital and Media Literacy that discusses the importance of having conversations with adolescents about ethics and technology. 
  • Starting with the adults in the building, the creation of a school-culture where it is understood that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated.
  • Clear ways to report bullying, including anonymously, with clear consequences for such behavior.
  • Counseling support for both those who are bullied and the bullies themselves.
  • Education for faculty and staff on LGBT issues and the vulnerabilities specific to that population. 
If you yourself, as a counselor, are unaware of the issues that LGBT adolescents can face , seek out professional development opportunities, either through your school system, a professional conference, or through an area university or college.  There is a great opportunity for school counselors to take leadership in bullying and harassment and help to develop strong prevention programs so that there can be less need to react to these devastating situations in the future.

The following article cited is available to ASCA members at
Hobbs, R. (2011) Digital and Media Literacy.  School Counselor (Nov/Dec 2011)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sexual Harassment

In last Sunday's Washington Post an article ran that discussed just how widespread sexual harassment has become in middle and high schools in the United States.  In 2010-2011:
  • 48% of 7th through 12th graders experienced sexual harassment either in person or through electronic media
  • 56% of girls and 40% of boys had gone through at least one experience of being sexually harassed
  • Half of these students did nothing about the harassment, and only 9% reported the incidents to school officials (source: David Crary at
Sexual harassment has grown from the days when it was simply inappropriate and suggestive comments and notes in the hallways.  Now, through modern electronic media, we find that it is pictures sent from cell-phone to cell-phone to a social-media website where all the world may view it.  It can be relentless explicit e-mails or comments posted to Formspring, an anonymous social-networking website.  Thus, in the past these pictures and comments, while certainly inappropriate and upsetting, would have probably been contained to a small number of individuals.  Now, we find that in a matter of minutes these hurtful and offensive missives can be seen by anyone in cyberspace.  The impact on a student can be quite heavy.  In the article, students who are sexually harassed report that the harassment
"...made them feel sick to the stomach, affected their study habits, or fueled reluctance to go to school at all." (source:  David Crary at
 Thus, sexual harassment can have a strong impact on the academic success of our students.

It is important to note that unlike bullying (which has some protections on a state-by-state basis), sexual harassment is against federal law and is part of Title IX.  In fact, many schools and school systems have mandated counseling lessons on sexual harassment that are often combined with bullying prevention.  The Department of Education defines sexual harassment and discusses proper procedures and interventions if a case comes up on their Office of Civil Rights website. Sexual harassment is defined there as
"...conduct that is sexual in nature, is unwelcome, and denies or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from a school’s education program." (Source:
Please note that gay and lesbian students are also protected under Title IX if they are being sexually harassed, but it does not cover discrimination based on sexual orientation.  As school counselors, there are several things that we can do in the areas of prevention and intervention to assist our students with this issue:
  • Prevention:  We can help to educate all students about what sexual harassment is, as well as educate them on what to do if they feel they are being sexually harassed by adults or peers in the building, in addition to the consequences of participating in harassing behaviors.  There are many different lessons that are available online, such as here and here, so that you do not have to re-invent the wheel.  Chances are also high that your school district or school have plans available as a resource.  The Equal Rights Advocates website has a great set of strategies for those who feel they are being harassed (saying no, reporting the behavior, documenting the behavior, not blaming themselves) as well as other pertinent information that you may find helpful as you are planning a prevention program.
  • Intervention:  Interventions can vary widely, depending on the situation.  We may at times simply be a link between the student and school or school-system administration.  We may be providing counseling support, both for the victim of the harassment as well as the student doing the harassing.  For those who are being victimized, you or another staff member may consider running an assertiveness or self-esteem group.  Likewise, for students who are sexually harassing other students, a small psycho-educational group that focuses on defining harassment, the consequences of the harassment, as well as the impact their behavior has on others may be necessary depending on the scope and scale of the problem within your building.  As always, one of our primary purposes is to serve as a student advocate and support them through these difficult situations.
There are several ethical considerations that may come into play with the issue of sexual harassment in the schools.  School counselors should not be the staff members who are themselves investigating claims of sexual harassment, and we walk a fine line between being supportive of our students without being judgmental of the others involved.  Consider the following:
  • What are your own biases and experiences with regards to sexual harassment?  If you have yourself been a victim of sexual harassment in the past, how does this effect your work with students on your case-load who may be accused of harassing others?  It is important to notice your personal reactions if a student comes to you who feels he/she is being harassed, as well as your reaction if you are asked to work with a student who may be harassing others.
  • If the person being accused of sexual harassment is another staff member, how will you walk the line of being a student advocate as well as a collegial staff member?  Your primary responsibility is to your student, but you will have to consider how to maintain a working relationship with this other staff member as they may teach other students on your case-load.  Confidentiality about the situation is an absolute must within your building and amongst your colleagues.  It is important to note again that it is not your role to investigate a claim of harassment or to pass judgement--there are other entities within your building or system who will manage that.
  • What will you do if both the accuser and the alleged harasser are on your case-load?  Is it a conflict of interest, especially if the claim is fairly serious?  Always check your own personal feelings about the situation as well as discuss with a colleague or counseling superior whether it is in the best interests of both students for you to work with them.
I would also refer to the ethical decision making model found at the end of the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors.  It is important that you consult, consult, consult if you feel at all that your work with any of the parties involved may be compromised.

For further information on legal and ethical considerations, as well as prevention programs and interventions, check out Sexual Harassment and Student Services Personnel, available in the ASCA bookstore.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

VCA Conference 2011: Reflections

You've fielded your 10th phone call from an angry parent for the day.  Yet another student wants to talk to you about a class change because they don't like the teacher.  You've received 5 e-mails in the last 3 hours from a teacher wanting you to address problems he/she is having with a student.  You have three classroom lessons you are supposed to lead about 9th grade transition at the same time you are supposed to be immediately responding to all of these other situations because the people involved all simultaneously believe that their concern is the most important.

Calgon!  Take me away...

Sometimes it can be a challenge to think about the big picture when you get caught up in the day-to-day workings of your job as a school counselor.  Who has time to think about marketing their school counseling program or pulling together resources for a much needed grief-group?  Half the time you are just trying to make it through the day by addressing the needs of your various stakeholders and making sure you have things ready to tackle the next day's challenges.  This is why professional development and conferences are so important--they give you a much needed break to recharge your batteries, provide inspiration, and connect you with resources to help better serve your population. 

This was definitely the case with the Virginia Counselor's Association conference this past week in Portsmouth, Virginia.  In two days I was able to gain some new insights into several topical areas, make some wonderful new professional connections, and have time to ponder ways to implement some of these concepts in my own program.

Marketing Your School Counseling Program

I attended a session on how to get the word out to your stakeholders about what you do as a school counselor, led by Donna Dockery from Virginia Commonwealth University.  If you want to get everyone on board, you have to educate your community on several things.  First, your role as a school counselor--what is it?  What is it not?  This seemed to me to be key, and was one of the biggest takeaways I had from the whole conference.  Dr. Dockery talked about how counselors, administrators, and teachers do not necessarily fully understand each other's roles, and how this can have an especially negative effect on counselors.  Thus, she did a study at VCU in which teachers-in-training were given a short video and some information about the role of the school counselor as defined by ASCA.   When compared to teachers-in-training who did not receive the same information there was a significant difference in their perceptions of what school counselors do.  If our administrators and teachers do not have a clear idea of the appropriate duties of school counselors, is it any wonder that we are asked to discipline students or supervise in-school-suspensions?  Perhaps there need to be meetings or in-services before the school year begins or right at the end in which all three school entities--teachers, administrators, and counselors--sit down and discuss their various roles, both the similarities and the differences.  The adults in our buildings have grown up with the idea of the old "guidance counselor," so even while our students often see that we are actively engaged in working with all students in the areas of academic, personal/social, and career/college, our teacher and administrative peers may not have that same understanding.  Try getting time at faculty meetings, department meetings, subschool meetings, etc. to give some brief information about our role and how it benefits all people in our communities, not only our students but our parents, teachers, and administrators.

Additionally, I was unable to attend any of his sessions but I did meet Neil McNerney, LPC, an adjunct professor in the graduate counseling program at Virginia Tech, Northern Virginia Campus, as well as a counselor with a great deal of experience working with adolescents and their families.  He was kind enough to give me some great handouts, including tips on how to boost attendance at your parent presentations.  However, I think that his ideas are not only applicable to parent presentations but also to helping to establish your counseling program with your school's parents, in general.  I'm not going to publish all of his information here (I would recommend attending a session of his or e-mailing him if you want more information), but basically it's not just enough to do the robo-calls and the blast-out e-mails.  We need to be engaging influential parents to help guarantee that people are attending the programs we spend a lot of time and staff putting together--have them go out into the community and work their parent-connected magic.  Further, we need to let parents know what the benefit will be to them for attending our programs--what ideas, tips, or information are they going to be able to take away and use immediately from that presentation?  In a busy world many parents need to know that it will really be worth their time to attend that session on homework help, substance abuse issues, or college-application preparedness.  Neil does presentations to schools and parent groups in the Northern Virginia area--I would recommend checking him out.

LGBT Considerations

Edward Andrews, LPC, NCC, CT is an up-and-coming expert on LGBT issues in counseling.  He practices both with Kaiser-Permanente as well as in his own private-practice in DC and Alexandria, Virginia.  What I found fascinating about his workshop was that it was looking at recently released health-data that now includes LGBT statistics.  I won't go into all of the details, but the one I found the most interesting is that most health professionals (doctors, nurses, counselors, psychiatrists, psychologist, etc.) do not ask about clients sexual orientation, history, etc. when working with their patients.   You're probably thinking, "We're school counselors--how does this really effect us?"  It makes me wonder how comfortable school counselors are in working with their LGBT students?  If students are struggling with their sexuality, how comfortable are most school counselors, in general, discussing this?  Is there enough training being given to the issues specific to LGBT youth (higher incidences of bullying, higher incidences of suicide, more difficulty socializing and making friends) so that school counselors are not only able to address the concerns when they happen but be proactive in helping their schools be welcoming and comfortable environments for this population?  Worth some consideration.


Ed also did a workshop on grief counseling, focusing on making meaning with a loss.  There were two things that I think would be helpful considerations for any school counselor looking to do a grief group.  First, he gave an example of a group run using narrative therapy, all online, that in a study proved to be highly effective.  Perhaps using Blackboard or some other similar program, would it be useful to have an online-component in a school group?  Students would answer prompts and post these narratives, perhaps inviting feedback from other group participants.  Secondly, there are a great many kinesthetic techniques that can be used to help facilitate working with the process of grief--personal journals, letters to the lost, biographies, musical memoirs, memory books, poetry.  I think that often we go to our comfort zone as counselors--talking.  For many kids (and adults, for that matter), talking may not always be the most comfortable mode for them to be able to express deep emotions.  Just as teachers try to teach to different modalities when presenting classroom information, we should try to hit on several ways for students to be able to work through grief--consider having them create items such as memory boxes or collages, or have them write stories in an online format.

Overall, it was a wonderful conference--I cannot recommend enough getting involved with national and local professional organizations and making a point of attending conferences, even if it is only once a year and local.  We all need the time to meet with colleagues from other schools and collaborate on ways to better serve all of our students.

Monday, November 7, 2011

College Anxiety: Cost, Part III

In this November 8th Wall Street Journal article, this discussion centers around whether it is worth it to attend an Ivy League school and amass debt or instead attend a less prestigious public university and graduate loan-free?  I discussed this in a previous blog entry, but according to this article more and more students are choosing to go to state schools even if they are accepted to Ivy League or schools with comparable reputations.

The considerations, according to the author are:
  • Ivy League schools tend to have more aggressive recruiting from employers, even during recessions--they may not make it to a public university.
  • The connections one makes at more prestigious schools can help to advance one's career after college or help a student get into a more prestigious graduate school.
  • Students can be denied enrollment into over-crowded courses at some state schools, causing their graduation sequence to be delayed or for important courses to be missed entirely.
All of these might be food for thought for any student trying to decide between Harvard and the University of Virginia, but there are ways that students who have chosen the path of smaller debt totals can counteract these concerns:
  • Apply for and seek out strong summer or capstone internships that can help to add prestige to a resume and also foster influential connections
  • Take on leadership or research roles in your institution, again adding strength to your future applications as well as assisting in connecting you to important people in your field
  • If your school has an honors program or honors college, apply--you will often be connected with other focused and academically strong students and also may be able to get first crack at registering for courses each semester
Money is not the only factor, but it does play a role in where students and their families ultimately decide to go to college, regardless of where they may have been accepted, especially in a tough economy.

Trends: STEM Careers

Over the last six months I have found it almost impossible to not step out of my apartment every day and trip over a news story about STEMs.  No, not the things that flowers are attached to.  Rather, the acronym "STEM"s refers to careers and college majors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  Education, policy, and economics are all buzzing about this topic.

Part of this stems (no pun intended) from the rising tuition costs and thus, the rising student loan debt of the current generation of college students.  You can check out my previous blog entries here and here for more information.  Parents and students want to know exactly what they will be getting for those $40,000 in loans they have to pay back for the undergraduate degree.  Will they get a job?  Will that career be relatively secure in the future?  Will they make a comfortable living over their lifetime in that field?

Some of the debate has centered on whether it is worth it, in today's economy, to get a liberal arts education encompassing the humantities:  philosophy, history, English, music?  Some would say, yes.
"After all, advocates of the humanities argue, it’s precisely because technology is fundamentally transforming our world that we should teach students to be broad systematic thinkers capable of absorbing the bounties of knowledge that arise from new wellsprings of discovery in fields like genetics, artificial intelligence and robotics." (source:
In the interests of full-disclosure, I hold an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in music, and I always reveled in my humanities classes.  However, it can be hard to argue with numbers, and a recent study published in this last year was able to link earnings over a lifetime to college major.  In this May article in the Washington Post, the author discusses how those who majored in the humanities, counseling, psychology, or the arts made significantly less money than those who were, say engineers.  The article does go on to say, however, that some of it is a value choice--those who major in, say, counseling, probably knew that they were not going to make as much money as a computer scientist.  However, the argument is made that colleges should link future job prospects and earnings to majors so that students and families can make wise choices about their chosen paths.

Which leads us back to careers and majors in STEMs.   These careers are trending up, and in a big way.  The US Commerce Department released a report this summer that details that STEMs jobs are growing at a much faster rate than non-STEMs careers, and that those workers in STEMs are earning 26% more than those in non-STEMs fields.  This blog post appeared last week with some pretty stark statistics about how those with associates and bachelors degrees in STEMs fields are making more than those with masters or doctoral degrees in non-STEMs careers:
"It’s become less about the degree level, and a lot more about what you take.  The whole structure that we all grew up with has essentially broken down.” (source:
The issue then becomes about the training for these careers and how the American education system is preparing students for this quickly expanding field.  The author of this article discusses how, even though the job opportunities will continue to grow in STEMs fields, a great many of our students are not prepared for them, lacking the higher level math and science knowledge to major in these areas in college and then find employment in these fields.  He feels that both educators and business partnerships have a responsibility to help mentor students into STEMs fields so that they can be successful and innovative in a 21st century economy.

What does this mean for us as school counselors?
  • Be up on the trends.  This has really been a big topic in the last year, so you can bet that our students and families are aware of it.  They will have a lot of questions about what possible careers there are in science, technology, engineering, and math.  They will want to know what colleges have strong programs in these fields.  They will inquire about what courses in high school they should be taking if they want to explore some of these areas.  For all of them advanced math is a must, and courses like computer science, engineering, and physics.
  • Encourage students to take the necessary upper-level math and science courses.  Some of our students need that encouragement and support to tackle what can be some very challenging coursework.  Yet, with a little patience and a focus on end-goals and the future, many more of them can probably be successful in these classes then they think.
  • Link those who are interested in these careers with support and enrichment.  I get quite a few e-mails each year from organizations like the Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars who have summer programs, although there are many others in every state.  Check out area universities, especially those known for strong STEMs programs--they almost always have some sort of summer camps for interested students.  These programs give them an opportunity to network with other students who have their similar interest.  Further, the science and math teachers in your building are a wealth of information with regards to resources and can also serve as formal or informal mentors to your students.
  • If you have a career day or career event, make sure that STEMs careers are included.  Since these are trending careers and growth is expected to continue in this field for quite some time, try to find people in one or more of these fields to come in and present if you are holding an event.
Not every student is going to want to major in a STEMs area or seek out a career as a software engineer, and there will always be plenty of students drawn to the humanities and the arts.  However, this is an ever growing field with many creative and interesting career paths that our students can pursue with a little help from their counselors.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Follow-Up: Salaries and Level of Education Go Hand in Hand

I recently wrote a post about salaries and the level of education.  There are some that would argue that some of the most brilliant minds of our generation did not have a college education, such as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, and yet they have made or continue to make a great deal of money over their lifetimes.

David Drew, chair of the school of educational studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, takes this on in a Washington Post guest blog-post. One of my favorite quotes is below:
"College provides access to careers that simply are not open to non-college grads. The American dream has always been that the poorest children among us have the opportunity to succeed.  A college education has always been the principal vehicle for transformative change: for moving from poverty to the middle class — and to the upper-middle class. College prepares the leaders of tomorrow." (source:
He makes the argument that while there will always be those exceptions to the rule, a college education is still the safest bet for a solid financial future.  Definitely worth a read--check it out here

Academic Interventionist

Have you seen the show Intervention?  Basically, there is someone with a substance or addiction problem whose life is spiraling out of control.  Through the help of an interventionist, family and friends confront their loved one.  Parts of a typical intervention involve letting the person know how much everyone loves and supports this person, sharing the consequences of inaction, and the offer of extra services that will help this person turn his/her life around.

Let me be clear--in no way do I mean to compare our students to the people who are struggling with larger issues on the aforementioned show.  However, many students have academic problems, and, at least here in the Washington D.C. metro area, report cards are going out either now or in the near future in area school systems.  If students have serious academic problems, what do you do?

You call in the "Academic Interventionist," a.k.a. the school counselor.

One of the three domains school counselors cover, as stated in the ASCA National Model, is Academic.  The other two are Personal/Social and Career.  Our stated mission is to remove barriers to academic success.  Where do you start?

You start with data.  What students are not performing well academically?  Most schools nowadays have computerized databases from which you can pull the names of the students and classes that they have low grades in.  For example, at the end of every quarter I pull the names and courses of all of the students in my case load that are failing classes.  I look at all of them, but I am especially looking at students with multiple course failures in core-classes (math, science, English, and social-studies) as well as seniors failing classes they need for graduation.  Next, you go back to the data.  Are any of these students also struggling with attendance?  If so, that could be having a direct impact on their grades.  Are any of these students also having discipline problems?  Suspensions, time out of class and instead with the assistant principal or security, fights in the hallways, etc. can all be a part of their struggles with grades.  If these students are new to you, you can also look back at past test scores--there may be indications there about their ability to handle the level of class or classes they are in.  For example, the student may be in an Algebra 1 class, but if they are failing and their math test scores from their previous school were low, maybe a placement in an extra math support class or an Algebra 1, Part 1 class would be warranted.

Okay, "Academic Interventionist."  You've gathered information and data.  You are now ready to swoop in with your interventions.
  • Meet with the student.   This is probably the most important step after you have assembled the data.  What is their perception of why the grades are so low?  There is a big difference between "I don't do any of my homework" and "I am working really hard, turning everything in, and I still fail every test and quiz."  One implies that you will need to work with the student on internal motivation, time-management, and study skills.  The other implies that this student may need to find extra help, either from another student, the teacher, or an outside tutor, or perhaps they are in the wrong level of class.  The next set of questions is usually about the plan of attack.  What is the student going to do to differently to improve their grade in the next marking period or quarter?  Stay after with the teacher?  Do their homework every day when they get home?  Check the class Blackboard, School Fusion, or class website every day?  Have them be specific in this plan--it is too easy to say, yes, I'll stay after with the teacher and then never actually do it.  What day of the week?  Every week for a month?  Let's put it in your planner.
  • Bring in the support of parents and teachers.  After I've met with the students, I call every parent of my seniors who are failing classes for graduation to inform them of my concern and to remind them of the consequences of not passing the class.  You do not want there to be any surprises come May or June.  For students with multiple course-failures, starting with seniors, I call parent-teacher conferences.  These are not the one-on-one conferences that parents and teachers have pretty regularly on their own.  Rather, these are conferences that I set up in which all of a student's teachers, their parents or guardians, possibly their administrator, the student, and I get together to discuss the overall problem.  By having all of these people together you are able to get a more holistic view of the student, which makes you better able to find and address the specific barriers to academic success.  In cases where it is just one class, I might bring the teacher and student together so that the two of them can discuss the issue and come up with a solution, or I might recommend to the parent that they call the teacher to discuss the issues further about that specific course.  Again, the focus is on coming up with a specific plan, complete with benchmarks to be met and deadlines that will be checked.
  • Connect the student and/or families to additional resources.  After you have met with the student and facilitated communication with parents and teachers to further diagnose the issue and come up with a plan, it may be time to look at additional resources to help the student, and hopefully your building is full of options.  For some students, small group counseling may be highly beneficial in the areas of study/test-taking skills/organization, attendance, anger management, or grief and loss, to name a few.  Other students may need referrals to your school's substance and wellness counselor.  There will be some students who may need additional help looking ahead to their futures--groups or organizations that work with minority students or first-generation college students can assist in broadening perspectives and providing resources to aid in a pathway to college.  For some, the current educational environment may not be one in which they can thrive, and an alternative placement, either within the school system or outside, may need to be discussed.  Some students and families may need support from local social services or outside agencies, in which case they may want to meet your school social worker.  Still other students may need to be referred to a local screening committee to ascertain if there are learning deficits or processing issues that may be impacting their academic success.  In most schools there is usually a wealth of resources and staff support--you do not have to do it all alone.
There are two things to keep in mind as you go about intervening with your students and families:
  • Keep records.  I write down conference dates, phone calls, and generalized intervention plans directly on my F-list that I print out.  If I call conferences or meetings, I then keep notes from those meetings in my personal student files that detail what was discussed and the plan to move forward.  These can be helpful as reference but also demonstrate how the school has tried to assist this student and family in being more academically successful.
  • Follow up.  It is great to come up with a plan to help the student, outlining the student's responsibility (he/she should have the most) and any additional responsibilities by you, the parent/guardian, or the teacher.  However, it may all be for naught if you do not check in with the student and/or the teachers and/or the parents at least a couple of times through the quarter.  This is especially true of those students who are struggling the most.  Change does not happen over-night, and they are going to need reminders of the plan, as well as someone helping them to check in through the quarter or marking period.  If your school has interim grades, you can use these as a good benchmark to see how the plan is working and if there need to be modifications or additional interventions.  Most important, though, is that students need to know that there is someone in the school who genuinely cares about them being successful--it is the relationship you build with these students that can often be the biggest instrument of change.
What I have found over the years is that I end up utilizing my counseling skills a great deal through this process, as you begin to uncover the causes of a student's academic struggles.  What may start out as a data/paperwork process quickly moves into a humanistic endeavor.  This is what we spend years and countless hours of class to do--work directly with our students to effect positive change.  Through your work as an "Academic Interventionist," you can have a large impact on the lives and futures of your students.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Salaries and Level of Education Go Hand in Hand

Census data yields all kinds of interesting patterns, including inspiring my last blog entry .  Another set of data that has recently come to light is the financial value of post-secondary education.
In this report, the average annual salary in today's society for someone who did not graduate from high school is in the low $20,000 range.  If someone's highest level of education is an associate's degree, they are averaging in the low $40,000 range.  For someone with a bachelor's degree it is just under $60,000, and for someone with a professional degree (M.D., J.D.) it is over $100,000 a year.

What does this tell us?  That education matters.  The report discusses how the education level is the most important factor, by far, over any other--culture, race, and class.  This is not to say other variables do not play a role--women make less than men, and Hispanic men and women make less than other cultural groups.  However, it is the highest level of education attained that is the primary factor.

Thus, students dropping out of high school are being set up to have limited resources throughout their lives.  To start, what can we do to help prevent students from dropping out?

In a May 2010 article in ASCA's School Counselor magazine entitled "Mission: A Drop in Dropouts," Robert Rothman discusses the components of a school-wide program to help prevent students from dropping out:
  • Literacy Instruction:  As school counselors, we can advocate for elective classes in literacy if your school does not already have them.  In Fairfax County, there are several course offering for students to assist them with building reading and writing skills.  These students receive elective credits for these courses that count towards their graduation requirements while helping them to build skills that will help them in their other required courses.  
  • Data Systems:  In our work as school counselors we tend to have access to the data to identify students most at risk of dropping out--current and past grades, test scores, and attendance.  After identifying those students we can then develop interventions--groups, individual counseling, family components--and track student progress, reviewing the data from time to time to determine how effective our programs are.  
  • Personalization:  School counselors can play a key role in personalizing the school with at-risk students.  By meeting with these students, checking up on them with their teachers and parents, and celebrating their successes, we are letting them know that someone cares about their academic success and thus their future.  We are giving them at least one person in their school to trust, rely on, and connect with.
Further, what this census article tells us is that not only that it is important for students to get a high-school diploma, but it is also important for them to get some form of post-secondary education.  The plan will be different for every student, but there are enough options out there for all, whether it be a community college or technical school, or a four-year university.  Many schools and school districts have developed planning and goal setting materials, or they utilize a computer program such as Naviance which provides valuable career, goal, planning, and post-secondary resources and an ability for students, parents, and counselors to track this information throughout a student's entire career in their own individual accounts.  Regardless of how it is done, meeting with all of your students to help them develop and realize their post-secondary goals is one of the most important aspects of a school counselor's job.  As I often tell my students, there is a lot of variation with what education students will get after high school.  Some will go to school for the next 10 years and become medical doctors, others will do a two-year associate's degree at NOVA and go straight into the workforce as an auto-mechanic. The point is that they need to have some post-secondary training of some kind to give themselves a fighting chance--and now we have the statistics to back that up.

The following work-cited in this article is available for members at the American School Counselors Association website:
Rothman, R.  (2010).  Mission:  A Drop in Dropouts.  School Counselor (May 2010).