Sunday, December 11, 2011

Academic Advising vs. Scheduling

In looking back on my own high-school career, I remember the few times I had interactions with my guidance counselor.  She was definitely ahead of her time, wearing pastel-colored velour warm-up suits as "work wear," long before J-Lo and Juicy Couture made this look popular.  I would see her around once or twice a year, when she would tell me what classes I would be taking the following year, and then proceeded to plug them into a computer system which would generate a schedule.  The only other time I saw her was when she handed me back my ACT scores, said they looked good, and asked me if I was thinking of applying to college.  When I answered that I was, she lifted up her powder-blue velvetesque arm and pointed in the direction of a shelf groaning with the weight of large books about various colleges.  She said I could look through those whenever I wanted to get some ideas.

This, my friends, is what I call "scheduling."  And perhaps also "guiding." And by guiding I really mean "pointing."

Scheduling involves no in-depth conversation.  Scheduling is not about looking at the whole student--their academic life, extra-curricular life, family life, and future goals and aspirations.  It is about circling classes on a piece of paper and entering them robotically into a computer.  As modern day "school counselors," we have been highly trained in strong counseling practice.  Scheduling takes none of this specialized knowledge.

"Academic Advising," however, does.  What is the difference?

In academic advising, you are having a dynamic and collaborative interaction with your student. You are examining data from a variety of sources.  You are looking at the student from a variety of vantage points--school, after school, family and home, etc.  You are examining how the classes your student is planning on taking is going to help them meet their future goals.  You are making informed choices with your students and their families versus dictating the outcome.

As counselors, we spend a lot of time with academic advising.  I know that in my school, it takes up the greater part of February and March.  When I first began working as a school counselor, I was concerned because I felt that "scheduling" students for classes was not an activity that was going to best utilize my counseling skills.  I quickly learned that if done in a holistic way, "academic advising" is a process in which you are asking questions in order to gain information in a way to best help your client make important short-term decisions leading to a long-term goal.  Further, these sessions have proven to be an excellent "touch base" time with my students to discover other issues that may need to be addressed.  A student with a sudden downturn in their grades can often turn out to be the student whose family is on the brink of divorce, who has recently suffered a loss, or who is beginning to show signs of depression.  How do you make academic advising valuable for your students and for you?
  • Make sure that students are informed before they come into your office.  How are students getting information about the classes that are open to them for the following year?  Do you have curriculum fairs and/or curriculum nights?  Do you put information up virtually about course-offering for both parents and students?  Do you meet with your students in large groups to discuss typical course choices and options?  What information is made available to your students about how challenging the more rigorous AP and IB courses will be--the level of textbook, the amount of homework per night?  We have a curriculum fair at my current school, and as that program has expanded over the last several years, I find that many of my students come in making better informed choices about advanced curriculum and electives.  Further, in our large-group orientation meetings, we ask them to consider their course selections within the context of their whole lives, and again I find that I have more students who walk in having given this some thought.
  • Gather the data and check for graduation requirements.  What do I have on hand when I am meeting with students?  I have their transcripts including the most recent grades I can get in their current classes as well as their GPA's.  I have teacher recommendations.  My school system has open-enrollment, so the students do not need a teacher recommendation to get into a class as long as they have any required pre-requisite classes.  However, the thoughts of a current teacher about the student's success in the next level of class are a highly valuable piece of information during these discussions.  For example, if a child is getting a "D+" in Algebra 1, is this because the student doesn't understand the material or is it because they don't do any of the homework?  Different answers would lead me to recommend different choices for the future.  I also have all of the course information available to me to double-check any questions that may arise.  I have access to test-score data--how a student performed on a state end-of-course exam can give you important insight.  Additionally, I am always looking to see if they are on track for graduation, paying special attention when they are going into their senior year.  I would highly recommend developing a form, either one that your school uses or one for yourself, which you can review on your own and with your students to make sure those requirements are being fulfilled.  If they are missing courses, that will inform some of what they will need to take the next year.
  • Ask a lot of questions.  Why do they want to take particular courses?  What else is going on in their lives?  If a student is working 30 hours a week, they may not have the time to do the work necessary to keep up with six AP classes.  Likewise, if they are doing football in the fall, they may find their first AP history class to be a bit overwhelming as they try to balance an intense practice schedule with the reading and note-taking.  Is there a lot of change going on at home?  Having this information will give you a view of the student as a whole and thus allow you to better advise on how various class choices will fit into the complete picture.
  • Confront and challenge choices.  If they have gone to the curriculum fair and had discussions with their families, many of them will come in with very realistic course selections.  Some of them, though, will not.  A student who is struggling to make C's and D's in regular classes wants to take two AP classes next year.  A student who has never gotten more than a C in science classes and who is always in your office complaining about them suddenly wants to take three in their senior year.  The student who makes straight A's in AP and Honors classes now wants to take all regular classes their senior year.  One of the things we are trained to do as counselors is to point out the contradictions in our client's statements and actions--this is no different.  I do point these out to students and express my concern--you've never made more than a C in a regular level class and you want to take AP next year?  How is next year going to be different?  What are you going to change?  You've been an A student in challenging classes for three years and now you want to take all regular classes--how is that going to look to colleges?  I will often call the parents of the child during these sessions and include them in the conversation if I feel that this is really not in the student's best interests.  Now is a time to share more information--the level of rigor of the classes, what will happen if the class isn't working out, your school's schedule change policy, what college admissions counselors are looking for.  With open enrollment, ultimately the choice is left up to the student and the family, but by confronting and challenging some of the choices the student makes, you are helping to begin a dialogue about the situation and better inform everyone about the pros and cons of these decisions.
  • Tie their courses and academic performance into future goals.  From the time that they are in 7th grade through 12th grade, it is important to work with them on how the choices they make now will effect the choices they have when they graduate from high school.  Further, their course selection can often help them towards future goals.  If a student is convinced that they have to go to a highly-selective college like the University of Virginia, then they need to be taking multiple AP or IB classes and performing at the top of their game in these classes.  If a student has a strong interest in culinary arts or information technology or cosmetology, are their classes that they can take to further those interests and give them real-world skills and possibly certifications to take with them when they graduate?  If they want to be an engineer, are they taking the upper level math and physics courses that will help them when they set foot onto a college campus?  One of our roles is to help them begin to connect what they do now with what they will do in the future.
  • Connect them with resources and more information.  For students who are first-generation college students, are their programs within your school system that they should be made aware of to support them?  If they are struggling with loss and grief, is there a group at your school that they could be referred to?  If your school has a program to encourage minority students to sign up for advanced coursework, are you making those students aware of it?   If they are 11th graders, do they know how to register for the ACT and SAT?  What if they ask about prep programs?  A student wants to know more about gap years--where do they go?  You have 9th graders who need more support with study skills--what is available?  By no means can you have all the answers to all of their questions or be able to give direct services to the many needs that your students will have, but there are probably many other resources in your school and greater community to assist.  Having many of those at hand--flyers, a list, resource book, etc.--will help to connect students in need with further assistance.  
One of our primary missions as school counselors is to remove barriers to academic success.  As such, it is important to self-assess to determine if you may have preconceived notions as a school counselor about various cultural, ethnic, or socio-economic groups that could be a barrier to students' academic success.  If so, seek out supervision from your director or a counseling supervisor, or perhaps even your own therapy to address these concerns.

These academic advising sessions help us to determine if there are barriers so that we can help students and families eliminate or work around them.  With some advanced planning, access to data, and a list of resources, we can do a lot more than simply "schedule" students.

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