Saturday, January 26, 2013

Are We Gatekeepers?

I was recently having a conversation with a colleague in which they were talking about their experience with their high-school counselor, "back-in-the-day."  This colleague described how the one time that they sought out their high-school counselor for some advice on the post-secondary process that they were told they were "not college material."

This colleague has gone on to get a Master's degree and an Education Specialist degree and is having a strong impact upon their own students as a school counselor.

While there are many things that are concerning to me about this story, one of the points that gives me pause is that this experience was only about ten years ago.  As a school counselor, I have heard from many friends and acquaintances over the years of similar interactions with their own school counselors.  My own experience with my assigned school counselor was one in which she handed me my ACT scores, asked me if I was thinking of going to college, and pointed to some books on a shelf that was falling apart in the hallway in case I needed any help trying to come up with ideas.  However, these are typically indicative of situations that happened 20 or so years ago--we've come a long way since then.  Right?  As I pondered my colleague's story this week, I began to wonder if this happened to them only ten years ago, how much of this is still going on today?  Are we, as school counselors, supposed to be acting as "gatekeepers," telling students what classes they can and cannot take, and deciding if they are going to go to college, a trade school, or straight into the work-force?

The answer is a resounding, "no."  If you look at the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) Code of Ethics, it states: 
From the Preamble: 
Each person has the right to receive the information and support needed to move toward self-direction and self-development and affirmation within one’s group identities, with special care being given to students who have historically not received adequate educational services, e.g., students of color, students living at a low socio-economic status, students with disabilities and students from non-dominant language backgrounds. 
Each person has the right to understand the full magnitude and meaning of his/her educational choices and how those choices will affect future opportunities. 
From A.3:
b. Ensure equitable academic, career, post-secondary access and personal/social opportunities for all students through the use of data to help close achievement gaps and opportunity gaps.
c. Provide and advocate for individual students’ career awareness, exploration and post-secondary plans supporting the students’ right to choose from the wide array of options when they leave secondary education. 
e. Promote the welfare of individual students and collaborate with them to develop an action plan for success.  (source:
Our code of ethics is telling us that we have a responsibility to make all of our students aware of all of their possible options but that the choice is ultimately up to them.  We collaborate with the student and the family to make decisions and plan for the future.  It is not enough, anymore, to choose on our own, what is best for a student with regards to class selections and post-secondary options.  Rather, as school counselors it is now incumbent upon us to educate a student and family about what options they have, what the possible ramifications and outcomes might be from their choices, and then to allow the student and family to make the best decision for them based upon the information they have been given.  As I've written about before, during academic advising my role would be to look at the available information (grades, test scores, teacher feedback) with the student, discuss the pros and cons of each choice, examine the student's post-secondary and long-term goals, and give my thoughts and recommendations.  Ultimately, though, the choice is up to the student and family as to how they would like to proceed.  Post-secondary planning is no different.  I work with my students to show them all of the available options to include four-year schools, two-year schools, military options, and gap years, we talk about how they stack up based on available statistics, and then they make their own choices as to where to apply and what they might do.

Our profession has transformed from one in which we guard the doors, deciding who gets to go through the one marked "college-bound" versus "trades" or "military" into one in which we provide students access to all of the possible doors and paths available, with a mind that some portals may be accessed at a later time.  This shift in our role is now more important than ever before.  The College Board recently released a study that discussed how many students are "undermatched" with regards to their college choice.  The study argues that there are students with the strong academic ability who do not access more "selective" colleges that would perhaps provide stronger rigor and educational opportunities.  Some of the factors that may be at play with this are the location of the school (city vs. suburban or rural), number of colleges and universities within a close radius of the school, and the number of adults in the area who have attained four-year degrees.  However, the study also acknowledges that more research needs to be done to determine why some schools have higher rates of "undermatching" than others.  Further, one needs to be careful with the idea of college-match and fit, as the best school for a student may not be the most competitive college to which they are admitted, as is discussed in this open letter.  Nevertheless, the study should give us pause as to think about whether we are challenging our students and encouraging them to take rigorous courses.  It should cause us to reflect upon whether we are providing our students with the full-range of post-secondary choices, including competitive state and private schools.

In addition, one of our goals is to help our students become college-and-career ready.  A recent review of data by ACT shows that many of our students are entering college without having met the benchmarks necessary in English, Reading, Math, and Science to be fully prepared for college-level work.  Those students who took a core-curriculum, defined as four years of English, and three each of Social-Studies, Math, and Science, met these benchmarks at a much higher rate.  As post-secondary training of some kind, whether it is a four-year school or a two-year school, becomes necessary for economic sustainability throughout one's lifetime, we must continue to strongly encourage our students to engage in a rigorous curriculum in order to insure that once they get to that post-secondary place, they are successful.  I have heard many times in education the comment that for those kids who are not four-year college bound (maybe not right away, and who decides this?), some of these higher-level classes and additional years of courses are not necessary.  I would counter that they are.  For example, here in Northern Virginia we have a very strong community college program with a variety of degrees and certificates available to our students.  However, regardless of whether a student's goal is get a degree that will allow them to transfer to a four-year school or to go through a year-long program that will allow them to work in an auto-body shop, they still have to meet minimum educational standards to begin taking courses that will count for credit towards a degree or certificate.  The math placement test for all students contains Algebra 2 content.  If students graduate without having taken this class and do not perform well on this test, they will have to enroll in and pay for non-credit skill-building classes until they have gained that knowledge.  This has become a real issue, as students graduate with high-school diplomas, but enter into colleges needing to take and pay for these skill-building courses for years, in some instances, before they can start on a degree or certificate.  Many of these students will simply give up, as a result, either of frustration or because of the cost.  As school counselors, we must insure that our students have access to these classes and advocate for systemic supports to help students be successful in these courses, perhaps double-blocking in the upper-level math classes, providing an additional support class, asking for classes that use these skills in real-world hand-on applications, or finding access to additional tutoring.  It is no longer enough the get them through a high-school diploma--they need to possess the skills and knowledge necessary to engage from the start in their post-secondary plan.

As we enter the season of academic-advising to include post-secondary planning, I would challenge you to think about your approach with students.  Do you stand by the gate, deciding who gets to enter and who does not, or do you open the doors for all of your students, giving them the information necessary to make informed choices for themselves, both for the short and the long term?  As we continue to build to a K-16 model of education, your answer is more important now than ever before.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Road to RAMP: Goal Oriented

This is the third in a series of reflections on the RAMP process.

There are twelve components to the RAMP application.  Twelve.  Thirteen if you are re-RAMPing.  You would think that with that many components, you might be able to have some low scores on a few and still come out on top in the end.

You might be wrong.

The third section of the RAMP application is the one where you list your program goals, which should include goals that seek to close an identified achievement gap or gaps.  In my previous RAMP post, I talked about how to find data to determine where your school's needs are in order to develop appropriate interventions.  The program goals take this to the next step and formalize what this data is telling you and what your aspirations are with regards to improving and changing the outcomes.  The thing that you may not realize is that these goals will also take over your entire application.  I am finding that our goals are literally driving the majority of our RAMP train--they are a main part of not only the program goals component, but they also then appear in your annual agreement and as a part of your advisory council.  Additionally, you will very likely have have small groups and curriculum lessons that help to support your goals.  As at least one of your goals should seek to close an achievement gap, that takes care of component number eleven.  Finally, component twelve, the reflection piece, will no doubt also include some musings on your goals.  Thus, it is extremely important to make sure, from the start, that your goals are solid, because if they are not, they could cause your entire RAMP train to derail before it barely has time to get out of the station.

Here are some tips to help you formulate goals that won't cause you to jump the track:

  • Base your goals in outcome data.  In my previous post, I talked about the differences between process, perception, and outcome data.  Your program goals for RAMP should be based on outcome data, meaning that they are based in academic data such as grades, test scores, graduation rates, or enrollment in advanced course work, as well as in attendance or school safety.  There is nothing wrong with perception data, but it is not as results oriented as outcome data.  Part of RAMP is showing how you and/or your department are able to effect systemic change within your school community--not just how people think or feel, but about how they act and achieve.
  • Make sure there is a demonstrated need.  This ties into the previous bullet point.  Your outcome data needs to show that there is a demonstrated need that justifies your focus and time on a particular project.  Too often we set a goal for something without having a justification for why it is important.  If your goal is to try to decrease the number of suspensions by the end of the year, yet in your school there were only two students suspended the previous year, there may be better uses of your time and year-long focus.
  • Use the SMART goal formula.  Many of us work on SMART goal writing and reflection with our students.  I have even heard of elementary students writing SMART goals.  We should expect the same of ourselves.  The SMART goal acronym stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound.  You want the goal to be very clear, simple, and precise.  For example, "The Smith High School Student Services Department will increase the enrollment of hispanic students in Advanced Placement classes by 10% from the previous year by June of 2013." "By June of 2013, the Chavez Middle School student services department will reduce the number of full-day absences by 15 % amongst students who have already amassed five or more in the first quarter.  If you are confused about SMART goals and want a place to start, take a look at this handout.  There is also more information in the ASCA National Model, 3rd Edition.
  • Make sure they can be tied back to your Vision and Mission.  If your goals cannot be linked in some way to your Mission and Vision, one or the other (or maybe both) will need some serious reflection and discussion.  Hopefully, your Mission and Vision statements discuss your role as a school counselor or school counseling team in helping to remove academic barriers for all students and in creating a positive school climate for your community--this is a great place to start.
  • One small-group or one classroom lesson do not a program or achievement goal make.  These goals should be large, over-arching goals that encompass large portions of the school year.  No matter how amazing you or your team are, the chances are very slim of a one-shot lesson or a four-session group in November being the sole agent of change with regards to an identified area of outcome data.  However, lessons and small-groups may certainly be a component of your full intervention plan and provide necessary support to your goals.
  • Let the goal simply state the aspiration.  Let the program plan discuss the intervention, methods of data collection, etc..  The goals should be relatively short statements that explain what you hope to improve, with whom, and give some indication of why it may be necessary.  The interventions and the finer points are going to be flushed out in much more detail in the program plan that accompanies it.  You can access the achievement gap/program plan template here--they are also accessible with the purchase of either the hardcopy or digital edition of the ASCA Model, 3rd Edition.  
  • Regularly review your progress through the year, and keep notes on your reflections.  We monitor our goals and check in regularly with each other through our department collaborative team meetings.  Through these conversations we keep notes so that as we approach the end of the year, we have information that helps to inform our RAMP narratives as well as our final reflections for our DATA reports.  Further, it helps to keep all of us in our department on track with where we feel we currently stand with the goals.  Because we are looking at outcome data, we are able to regularly see if we are on target to meet our end-of-year aspirations and adjust our interventions as needed.
My wish is that by the end of the year, we have been able to demonstrate, through hard data, our department's impact on the academic achievement of our students as well as our contributions to creating a positive, safe, and college and career going culture within our school.  By giving a lot of time to the writing and designing of our goals, and by having others review them and give us constructive feedback, my hope is that they not only reflect well in one component of the RAMP application, but shine through all twelve.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

School Counseling Linky Party 2013

I am loving the chance to participate in something fun and creative--thanks to Marissa Rex over at for starting this (and supplying the graphics)!  For those of you who may be scratching your heads, many school counselor bloggers are taking some time to reflect on our 2012 blog posts.

I guess the aspect of my blog that I'm most pleased with this year is the posts I am doing on the Recognized ASCA Model Program (RAMP) process.  I am fortunate to work in a school district which provides a great deal of support to us as we compile data and narratives throughout the course of the year.  I think it is important to share what I am learning and what is giving me pause for reflection as I and my department navigate these waters with the hopes that other school counselors and school counseling departments will see that with some long-range planning, assessment of tools and supports, and a willingness to dig into their data and programming, they too can begin to move towards RAMP certification if they so choose.

My favorite post is the one entitled, Mirror, Mirror: The Importance of Reflection.  As school counselors, we work so hard throughout the year meeting the needs of all the various stakeholders that come across our paths--students, teachers, parents, administrators, and community members.  Yet, as we know, we are ourselves transformed with every new interaction, relationship, and event.  It is important to reflect each year, as much as we can, on the impact that we are having on our schools through our programming and interventions, as well taking stock of the impact they are having upon us as practitioners and people.  We must be well ourselves and with ourselves in order to be able to best serve others.

The post I previously mentioned was the second-most popular post with my readers.  The number-one post, though, were my reflections on the movie, Bully.  It was a very powerful movie that many of us in the school counseling community viewed, and that many of the people within our schools saw.  The high-volume of people who have read and continue to read this post leads me to think that this is a topic that is still very much on the front of our minds, and one to which we, as school counselors, are looked to for leadership within our buildings.

I read many blogs on a variety of topics.  Here are the ones I follow most for my work in school counseling:

The Counseling Geek
I love technology, but it is not always an intuitive process.  I can get quick tips and ideas from this blog that help me streamline my practice and use my time more effectively.  If I can cut an administrative task from 10 minutes down to 5, that is five more minutes I can devote to working directly with a student or family.

The Choice: New York Times
This is a must if you are a high-school counselor and working with students on the college-admissions process.  Some of the best posts are from actual high-school seniors documenting their journey through the admissions time-line.  Additionally, they are constantly featuring posts from people who work directly in college-admissions about everything from financial-aid to early-decision.  They also send out monthly check-lists for juniors and seniors that you can share with your students to help keep them on track.

Scrapbook of a School Counselor
The thing I admire most about this writer is her courage to bare her soul about how her work in school counseling makes her feel and the questions that it raises in her daily life.  You cannot do this work and not be constantly challenged and transformed, and she is not afraid to take you on that journey with her.  She gives voice to what so many of us feel, and in that way lets school counselors know that they are not alone in their experiences.  There is a lot of power in being willing to share your story.

Pikesville High School Counseling Department
This is a relatively new blog, and it is a departmental blog for Pikesville High School in Maryland.  I love the way that information is categorized for each grade level, and there are some great posts that not only inform you as a school counselor, but that you can share with your students and families.  So far they've covered topics from finding a good college match to interpreting PSAT scores in a healthy, positive way.  As school counselors, we are tasked with helping our students develop post-secondary plans that are realistic and that provide students with a pathway to a solid future.  This is a great model for any high-school department looking to develop a blog that can be followed by their school community.

School Counselor Blog
This is the first school counselor blog out there, and since it has been around for a while it is full of a ton of useful information.  If you need elementary classroom lessons, she has you covered.  If you need resources for crisis or using technology as part of your practice, it's all there.  She features guest bloggers that bring additional depth and perspective to a variety of issues and topics in the field.  Another must-follow.

There are so many more great blogs out there--I'm sorry I can't choose all of them.

If you are interested in starting your own blog for you or your counseling department, Danielle Schultz, the creator of School Counselor Blog, will be doing a webinar through ASCA on January 16th, 2013 at 4 p.m. that will break it down and give you tips to begin.  Sign up at this link and start blogging!