Sunday, March 17, 2013

Reflection: The Bully Effect

Last year I wrote a post about the movie Bully, a powerful documentary that followed the lives of several kids, families, schools, and communities who were effected by bullying and harassment.  A year later, you are left wondering how the people involved are doing and how their lives may have changed as a result of the movie.  Recently, a follow-up documentary called The Bully Effect, produced for Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN, has been airing (check local listings, On-Demand, and other television video services for viewing opportunities).  This piece follows up on most of the stories and people shown in the original documentary:

Overall, this new documentary conveys a message of hope for the kids and families in the original movie, and aims to show just how powerful an effect the film has had on kids, schools, and communities across the nation.  Alex, a child who was physically assaulted on a daily basis in his school and on the school bus, now has many friends and has turned into a powerful advocate and speaker against bullying across the country.  The father of Ty, a young man who committed suicide, has also turned into an anti-bullying speaker whose mission is to reach as many schools and kids as possible with his message.  Kelby, a young woman who was harassed and bullied because of her sexual orientation, has been in a relationship for three years and has the continued love and support of her family.

All is not right with the world, however.  I was most concerned with the fact that, although Alex is doing extremely well, his family had to move into another school district in order to insure the safety of their children after his sister was assaulted on the playground of the same middle-school that Alex had attended.  The administrator who the family had sought out for support but who had done little, at least as portrayed in the context of the original film, has not only remained in the school district but was promoted to being a principal of a local elementary school.  Kelby has the support of her girlfriend and her family, but eventually the decision was made for her to drop out of high-school and get her GED after she was allegedly run down by a car close to school grounds with the intention to injure her based on her sexual orientation.  This continues to demonstrate that anti-LGBT bullying and harassment not only impact students socially and emotionally, but also academically.

The message to me from this follow-up documentary: advocacy is still needed, and we still have work to do.  Even after the national spotlight had been shown on Alex and Kelby's schools, the bullying and harassment continued to the point that they both had to leave not only in order to thrive, but in order to be safe.  Further, while they are now in places where they can be begin to move ahead with their lives, I wonder about the many other kids who are still in those schools and communities--if nothing has changed within those school cultures with regards to bullying and harassment, are they doomed to encounter the same hostilities, the same assaults, the same threats as Alex and Kelby?  If kids do not have even the basic need of safety being met at their school, how can we expect them to learn?  How can we expect them to achieve?  How can we expect them to move into meaningful post-secondary programs?  Indeed, the "Bully" effect has been huge as the stories of the children and families portrayed have made their way into hearts and minds across the country.  However, what seems amiss is that it has not yet made its way into some of the schools of the very kids who continue to inspire anti-bullying policies and conversations to this day.

School Counselors: Advocacy needed, and we still have work to do.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Just How Important Is That GPA?

How many times does "GPA" (grade point average) come up in conversations you have with either your students or their families?  If you're like me, you hear it on a daily basis.  Is my GPA high-enough to get into college?  Will a C+ in this AP class ruin my GPA?  Shouldn't I take a standard-level class and get an A versus an honors level class and get a B since it will make my GPA higher?  It can leave you wondering if the GPA is the be-all, end-all for students and college admissions.

A recent article in USA Today looked into this issue, and finds what college admissions offices have been telling us for years--that for many schools, the GPA in-and-of itself is not a key factor.  Rather, it is the grades students receive in their classes and the rigor and challenge of the classes themselves about which colleges are really concerned.  Below is the list of factors in rank order from the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC):


GPA is not listed.  When I share this with parents and students, they often go into shock.  Why is this?  Every school and/or school system computes GPA's in different ways.  When I was in high-school, in my district everything was factored in except for PE classes, and certain courses deemed more rigorous were given weights.  Other school systems weight nothing, regardless of the level of the class, while others will assign a +.5 weight to an honors class when someone else assigns the same level of class a +1.0 weight and another a +2.0 weight.  Some use 5.0 versus a 4.0 scale.  There is no real consistency from one school system to the next, and as college admissions offices receive applications from all over the United States and the world, trying to compare applicants by their GPAs is like comparing apples to oranges.  Thus, many colleges will recompute GPA's according to their own formulas to level the playing field for the students in their applicant pool, like the University of Florida in the USA Today article.  Some will take out all weights.  Some will only factor in "core" classes to include math, science, English, social-studies, and world language.  Others will not do any computations at all, but rather evaluate the transcript holistically, looking at the level of classes a student took and the grades they received in those classes.  Check out this video from the Office of Admissions at Virginia Polytechnic University (Virginia Tech):

If this is the case, why deal with GPA's at all?  They can be great tools in-house.  We use Naviance in our school system, and one benefit is that it allows students to compare their GPA's with the GPA's of past-students (no identifying information is given) who applied to a specific college or university.  Because the data is restricted to one school, this is a like-to-like comparison using the same GPA computation.  Thus, it can give a student a realistic idea of how they might stack up based on past year's admission data for their school.  However, even this needs a word of caution, as the rigor of the classes may not always be reflected within this one data point.  Thus, a student can have a really high GPA but not necessarily be competitive depending on their class choices, or a student from your school can have a slightly lower GPA than the average for a particular college but still be a strong candidate because of the rigorous classes they took.  Additionally, the GPA can be a good common reference point when talking to students and families in general about post-secondary goals within your own school population.  It is an understood measurement within your community to begin discussions about classes and college goals.

Still, the best advice for students and families may be to focus a little bit less on the GPA, take the most challenging and rigorous courses you can manage successfully within the context of your entire life, and strive to get A's and B's in all your classes.  That, in and of itself, is the best formula for the beginnings of a strong college admissions profile.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Road to RAMP: Get Your Group On

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

Let's face it--groups abound at the elementary level.  Changing families, lunch bunch, study skills, organization, test taking, friendship and social skills, and secret agent/random-acts-of-kindness, just to name a few.  During my three-and-a-half month elementary internship, I ran three groups of my own and assisted with a few others.  At high-school, it's a completely different story.

I'm going to be honest with you, blogosphere.  The small-group component of the comprehensive-school counseling program has probably been the hardest for us to implement, not from a lack of desire or skill, but because at the high-school level there are a lot of structural impediments to being able to garner the time, space, and access to students necessary to fully develop this aspect of the model.  Mission, Beliefs, and Vision?  No problem.  Guidance lessons?  Done and done.  Program and achievement-gap goals?  We've been doing those for years.  Groups, however...those have taken some time.

This year, however, we are finally up-and-running with multiple groups that cover a variety of academic, personal/social, and college/career topics, or combinations thereof.  Through the process of running groups over the last several years, I have learned through much trial-and-error some thoughts and ideas that might not only assist in how to structure and plan your groups, but garner support from your school community, as well.  Groups are an important part of your school counseling program for several reasons.  First, they give you more bang for your buck.  In a 30 minute time slot, you may get to work with one, two, or three students on an individual basis.  If you use that 30 minutes for a group, you can impact eight to twelve students.  Groups give you more reach into your population of students, helping us to better reach our goal of working with "all" of the kids in our schools.  Secondly, there is a great deal of power when students learn from each other.  In fact, if you work with high-school kids, you know that they are more liable to take-to-heart thoughts and ideas from their peers than from adults.  In my grief/loss group, the consistent feedback at the end was that the most beneficial part of the group was getting to be around other students who had also suffered a major loss and being able to learn from each other's unique experiences.  Through sharing with each other, the students learned much more than if I or another counselor would have worked with them individually.  Finally, groups allow you to target specific needs within your school.  Not every student needs a group on grief/loss or study skills, but when the needs in your building indicate that more than just one or two students would benefit from more in-depth exploration of a subject, groups are a way to address these issues while maximizing your time and reach.  So, how do you go about setting up a group, especially if they are not yet a part of your school culture?

Well ahead of time...
  • Examine your calendar for the year and determine what windows of time might work best for running groups.  For example, in September and October we are extremely busy with seniors, freshmen, career lessons, and just getting the school opened.  However, in November and December there was more open-time, so that was a point at which some of our groups could run. In May, our entire school is heavily involved in state end-of-course exams, so that is not a good time for us to be running groups.  The goal is find some spots where you might have some time to realistically devote to a group without overloading your already busy schedule.
  • Pull data to determine what group/groups are needed.  This is key.  You might want to run a group on changing families, but if there is no demonstrated need for the group, you have to ask yourself if your efforts would be better spent on a different topic.  You have several places you can get this information.  First, look at your outcome data sources (grades, test scores, attendance, discipline/school safety).  Is there a group you could run that would target one of these sources?  Next, you can look at needs assessment data.  We determined our list of groups this year based on a previous assessment that showed us which areas students felt they wanted additional assistance.  Finally, you can look at anecdotal evidence, but be cautious and do some checks to insure the there really is the need that everyone is perceiving there to be.
  • Build relationships with faculty and staff.  You're going to need them when you start to find space for your group as well as possibly utilizing instructional time to run the group.  If your staff knows you and respects you and your work and sees you as a member of the school team, they are more likely to support your upcoming efforts.
  • Find a partner.  At the high-school level, we are often pulled in different directions, especially if one of our students is in a crisis.  Finding a group co-leader can help to divide the work-load of planning and running the group, give students another adult to identify with if they need follow-up and additional support, and better insure that the group will stick to its schedule, even if one of you is pulled away for any reason.  Don't be afraid to look a bit outside of your department if you need to--school social workers, school psychologists, and, depending on the nature of the group, teachers or career specialists might be great team-mates.
  • Plan like there is no tomorrow.  Determine what the goals are for your group, how you will gather data (process, perception, and if possible, outcome) on the effectiveness of the group, and then what the over-arching structure and layout of the group will be.  You do not have to reinvent the wheel--there are a million curricula and ideas out there, either in books or online.  You will probably need to tweak them for your particular population, but you should not feel like you have to design everything from scratch.  How many sessions will you need?  Determine the schedule for the group that will impact instruction as little as possible.  If you are in a school that has some sort of homeroom/extra period/remediation time built into the schedule, try to work with this.  If your school just has a standard schedule, try to rotate group sessions so that you are not constantly pulling students from the same class.  Make sure to reserve the space you will need well ahead of time, as it tends to go fast, especially if you will be utilizing computers or other technology resources as part of your group.
Right before and during the group...
  • Screen the students.  This is extremely important.  You need to gauge their interest and commitment level, give them parent-permission forms, and make sure that they are a good-fit for the group.  Some students are not yet ready for a group and may need more individualized support before beginning a group, especially as it relates to personal/social topics.
  • Use parent-permission forms.  This has several purposes.  First, for most of us, there are often policies and regulations in place that state that we have to get parent permission before working with students in groups over multiple session and extended periods of time.  Secondly, this is another opportunity to share the work that you and your program are doing to benefit the school community.  The letter should give a general overview of what the group will be covering, the goals and expected outcomes, and invite communication between you and the parent if there are ever any concerns or issues that pop up throughout the course of the group. 
  • Finalize plans.  This should be the point that you determine your curriculum and double check things like space reservations and the schedule to make sure the foundation has been laid for a successful and consistent experience for both the students and you.
  • Communicate with teachers.  This is key, and I truly feel this is why I have been able to successfully lead groups at the high-school level.  I create a group in my Outlook e-mail program of all the teachers for all the students who are going to be part of the group, and then I let teachers know the general purpose of the group and what topics we will be covering, how it will benefit them in their work in the classroom, and what the schedule of the group is going to be.  I also send out reminders prior to each session and follow-ups afterwards with attendance and general points that were covered.  In this way, you are keeping teachers in the loop as to why you are pulling students from instructional time, thus involving them versus keeping them out of the process.  Additionally, if teachers see themselves as partners, they can share with you when they are worried about a student in your group, helping you to better intervene or bring up topics of importance in the next session.
  • Involve students in determining the group norms and rules.  Every group needs some sort of guidelines, especially with regards to confidentiality if kids start sharing personal information.  You and your co-leader will want to talk about when you have to violate confidentiality as well as the goal of having the group members respect the stories of the other students.  However, let the students have a say in the rest of the norms--they almost always come up with what you would have listed and then some.
  • Give yourself time for reflection.  It is important for you and your co-leader to reflect upon each session.  What went well?  What did not?  Do any of the group members need individual follow-up before the next session?  Did you all forget something that you need to remember to bring up the next time they meet? If you went off-topic (and this will happen frequently) was it meaningful and beneficial or should you work to bring the group back into focus more in future sessions? Was there anything that came up in the group that is effecting you?  This does not have to be an hour discussion, but taking a few minutes will help to make sure that you are best addressing both the needs of the group as well as yourselves.
After the group...
  • Collect data.  Consolidate your pre and post tests, examine your outcome data, and even do some interviews of students in the group.  Compile that data into graphs and charts and share that with all the stakeholders.  This is key, as sharing this information with the teachers and school community members will show the impact you are having on students, as well as why it is important for you to access students during instructional time.  
  • Determine what follow-up, if any, you need to undertake.  Do some students need some continued assistance with individual meetings?  Would it be helpful to do a check-in session a month or so after the final session of the group?  Are there students that would benefit from another group that is slated to be done that year?  You want to make sure that students who may still need to access supports are able to receive them.
  • Reflect, reflect, reflect.  When all is said and done, you and your co-leader should take some time to look at the data and determine if the group was a success.  Regardless of if it had the intended outcome or not, some thought should be given to what worked and what didn't and what changes you would make if there is a need for this group again in the future.  This information should also be shared with stakeholders.
You'll notice that most of the work is done prior to the group ever starting.  The time you put in prior to planning, screening, and communicating about your group will pay off tenfold once you get in there and start running sessions.  If you do not know where to start, I would recommend trying to get one group in during your least-busy time of year (if there is one) and have it tie into some form of outcome data--grades, test scores, graduation rates, attendance, or discipline/school safety.  If you can plan a group centered around one of theses data points, you are more likely to get buy-in from your school community.  If, after you've run your group, it is successful, this may allow you to then assess additional needs and develop more groups on a wider variety of topics to better serve your student population.  Good luck!