Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Looking for a Counselor Role Model? Try Dana Dornburgh

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D




Dana Dornburgh
School counseling is one of the few professions where the year starts fast and gets faster. This is particularly true in high schools, where the school counselor is welcomed back on their very first day with an office full of parents and students, all eager to discuss their academic intentions for the year. In other words, schedule changes.

Of course, some school counselors don’t even have to wait that long. Dana Dornburgh of Holland Patent Central School District was at home, squeezing the last drops out of her summer, when her daughter approached her, phone in hand. The parents of one of her daughter’s classmates didn’t have access to the school’s online portal, so they texted Dana’s daughter to see if Dana could take a screenshot of their daughter’s schedule and send it to them. You know—today.

Dana’s response, in length, quality, and success, is more that reason enough to elect her Queen of School Counseling. “I'm not at work. I'm on a ladder painting my porch. See you Thursday!”

Dana came to mind this week, as counselors are not only trying to advise students on personal issues, but also keenly focused on helping students apply to colleges that have early application deadlines  Applying to college is, at best, a well-organized fire drill of different people sending different things at different times, and hoping it all gets there on time. In the interest of helping some students learn more about responsibility, there are some things only the student can do in this process, like write the essays, and send in their test scores. That may not seem like much, but the number of students who come in asking if it’s too late to do either of these things, can be incredible, or depressing…

…or it could inspire you to reach down deep and find your inner Dana Dornburgh. It seems easier to say no during schedule changing season to requests that are a stretch. After a while, you can tell that Billy’s new interest in World Geography has nothing to do with Khartoum, and much more to do with Emily, who happens to love World Geography. If only Cupid could change schedules—but until then, it’s just me.

Believe it or not, missing college deadlines is really the same thing. Students and parents insist this is different, more serious. Billy and Emily have plenty of time to see each other outside class, and it’s likely their high school romance will fade. But denying a student the chance for admission at a college, just because they didn’t heed the dozen warnings you gave them about deadlines?

Not every student gets the attention they deserve from an overworked counselor, but it’s important to create policies about deadlines that give students the tools they’ll need to be successful at college. Will a college professor extend a term paper deadline, just because Billy never looked at the syllabus? Will Emily assume she can get more time for a project just by asking, since that’s all she’s had to do in high school? Americans are known for being inventive, but what does it say about the way students value rules if they’ve been raised to believe they’re always exceptions?

Counseling is a fine line between being supportive and being nurturing, or creating responses that lead to student growth. That may call for occasional exceptions to deadlines and processes, but if they’ve been created to provide growth, what are we saying to kids when we don’t let them grow?


Which is why I brought a mental paintbrush to my office today. Thanks, Dana Dornburgh.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Need Counselor-Focused PD? In Michigan, There’s a Law for That

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D



You’ve been through this one too many times. You get through the first nine weeks of school, and you’re truly looking forward to the in-service day. You have all kinds of ideas about what you could do with the day—online seminars, visiting a college campus, talking to local mental health professionals about community needs— and you’re just about to run these ideas past your administrator, when the agenda for the day hits your inbox:

9-11:30 Learning the new online grading book

12:30-3 Reading across the curriculum

Important? Yes.

Good to know, so you can be a more supportive colleague for classroom teachers? You bet.

Directly applicable to your work as a school counselor? Absolutely not.

PD budgets are tight, so the school wants to get the biggest bang for their buck. That means the day is scheduled to help the 93% of the educators in your building who teach in classrooms, and the other 7% is just going to have to grin and bear it. Again.

That’s likely to change in Michigan in the next few years, thanks to a bill that was signed into law yesterday. House Bill 4181 was created in response to three clear needs. The first need came from state business leaders, who felt the state was putting too much emphasis on the value of a four-year college degree. Since students didn’t learn about vital career options in fields like manufacturing and skilled trades, businesses found themselves with thousands of vacancies in jobs that required as little as six months training, many with starting salaries of $40-50,000 a year.

The second need came from the public in general, who also had the feeling that maybe four years of college wasn’t the cure-all for Michigan’s economic woes. Polls showed an overwhelming majority of citizens felt the quality of college and career advising had a long way to go—and even though many realized part of the problem was due to the huge caseloads counselors worked with, there was still a sense something more could be done.

Combined with the frustrations of school counselors who were looking for professional development opportunities that spoke to their professional needs, House Bill 4181 found the essential support needed for passage. Michigan school counselors have long needed to complete 150 hours of professional development every five years to maintain their license or certification. This bill keeps that number at 150 hours, but requires that 25 of those hours focus on updated training in college counseling, and 25 hours focus on training in career counseling, with 5 of those 25 focused on careers in the military. The remaining 100 hours of professional development can be in anything else—including topics focused more on teachers—but the 50 counselor-focused hours is a big change, and a good start.

The bill now requires the state to develop guidelines for what kinds of professional development will meet these new requirements. Testimony on the bill focused on activities like counselors using professional development days to visit college campuses and job sites, participating in online seminars and “make and take” workshops, and taking greater advantage of the free professional development options that already exist in the state.

There are already enough free PD options in Michigan to have counselors meet these new requirements for the next 15-20 years. House Bill 4181 is expected to free more counselors from the bonds of teacher-based PD to take greater advantage of these programs, and the new ones that will come about as a result of the bill’s passage—all for the betterment of Michigan students, and Michigan’s economy.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Responding to “Our Records Indicate”

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D



November is one of the most challenging times to be a high school counselor.  With so many students applying to colleges that have early deadlines, it can be impossible to get all of their transcripts sent on time—so, of course, you tell the students that if they are applying to a college with a November 1 deadline, they have to tell you this by October 15.

It would be great if this works, but it doesn’t.  There are those students who will never, ever understand that applying to college is a team activity.  As far as they are concerned, if they wake up on Halloween and decided to apply to a college with a November 1 deadline, there’s no reason they could possibly think of that would prevent you from submitting their transcript, along with a personalized letter espousing their talents.  After all, they reason—they gave you a day’s notice!

What’s even worse is when these very same tardy students come back into your office November 4 and say “I just checked my application portal, and it says you never sent my transcript!” Try as you may, the student just won’t believe it when you try to point out that the college has just received 3,000 transcripts in the last three days, so they haven’t had a chance to file them all yet.  This is also a perfect time to point out why you set an October 15 deadline for November 1 applications, but they won’t understand that either.  In fact, that likely only increases the chances of their parents calling wanting to know why you didn’t send the transcript, and why you yelled at their child.

There’s only so much you can do to try and keep students organized, and the key is to be organized yourself.  Once you figure out how much November 1 stress you can handle, take these steps to implement your plan:

Start early  There are tons of students who won’t pay attention to any reminders, but there are many who will.  Since every obedient student makes your job that much easier, set up a calendar of college application due dates and share it with students and their families as juniors.  Announce it at parent programs, put it in the college handbook, text it, post it on your Website, remind students if you meet with them individually.  Ample coverage is your best defense for any student or parent who says they were never told.  Remind them there’s a difference between not knowing, and never being told.

Give them something to do  No matter what your best plans, there will always be a student applying late, or a college erroneously saying they are missing something.  Reading a “we don’t have it” email from a college is a pretty helpless feeling—so give your students help.  Every time you talk about college deadlines, tell them that colleges make mistakes, and sometimes claim to be missing things they have.  If you get a notice, call the college, and have them double check.  There’s a good chance one part of the computer wasn’t talking to the other part of the computer, and it’s there.

Give them something else to do  If the college insists something is missing, you also want to empower your students to solve the problem.  Give them a process—“Email me, call me, contact the department secretary”—and when they come in with a problem, make them follow it.  Knowing something can be done is good; knowing what to do is better, and will make for an easier time for everyone.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Counselors Can Help Students? Yes, They Can. That Isn’t New News.

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


The most popular school counseling piece I ever wrote was for National School Counseling Week, where I talked about the behind-the-scenes work school counselors had done to help out a student struggling with an eating disorder, and a high school senior who was struggling with the responsibilities of being an unexpected father. This column resonated with a lot of people, especially counselors, who know that much of their work as mental health professionals must, by definition, go unrecognized. That’s been the case ever since we’ve had school counselors, and it was absolutely the case in the 1980s, when a counselor helped out the two students alluded to in that column.

The long-standing reputation school counselors have as advocates for the personal well-being of students makes me wonder about the recent spate of new articles like this one that are trying to portray our mental health role as if it’s something new. What’s even more interesting is that most of these articles take the same approach to explaining this “change”, by saying “You may remember your school counselor as the person who sent out transcripts and told you where to go to college, but…” The articles then go on to explain how the “new” school counselor focuses on four (or five) areas of student growth, presents lessons in classrooms, and partners with other school officials to create a positive atmosphere of personal growth for all students.

It’s hard to say just why there’s an effort to re-cast school counselors in this new light, especially since school counselors have been playing these “new” roles for decades. It’s certainly true that some schools haven’t used school counselors to their full capacity, occupying their time instead with administrative duties like schedule changes and test oversight. But that isn’t a reason to convince administrators that counselors can do “new” things that aren’t really new. If anything, it would be wiser to use the success and history of past school counselors as examples of best practices a struggling school can adopt, knowing that this model has been successfully used at hundreds of schools in the past. With school administrators, familiarity breeds comfort, while innovation often leads to doubt.

Part of this framing of counselors as mental health advocates may be a desire to have the public see school counselors as something other than college and career advisers, but counselors pursuing this path will also want to proceed with caution. School counseling continues to enjoy renewed interest by the public at large thanks to the work of former First Lady Michelle Obama, who praised the value of school counselors, especially in their capacity to help students go to college. Combined with the high expectations parents have for counselors to play this important role, now is the time to embrace this opportunity, and meet those expectations. The goodwill and trust created with the parents and the larger community can then be used to advance the other parts of the school counseling curriculum in ways that would otherwise be hard to achieve.

The media may present images suggesting school counselors have a history of being well-meaning but somewhat clueless, but that image overlooks the long record of support and success counselors have extended to students for years, in everything from individual counseling of family concerns, to group counseling of mental health challenges, to classroom lessons on common challenges facing students as they grow up. Affirming the media's false portrayal, and using this straw man approach to advocate for a “new and improved” approach to school counseling is not only professionally dishonest; it portrays a lack of respect for the counselors who changed as many lives then as counselors do today. As a profession, we’re better than that.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The End of the Safety School

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D


It’s known as the calm after the storm. Once the October flurry of college applications are submitted, and you’ve done your best to offer words of support and praise for every one of the 62 gazillion students on your caseload applying to college, you somehow find a minute to review just who has applied to what college, just to make sure everyone has a place to land next year.

And that’s when it hits you. Dear Melody, that high-flying senior who came into your office with a color-coded list of colleges and a spreadsheet that would put Goldman Sachs to shame, has completed all of her applications to the colleges that admit two percent of their applicants—but somehow never got around to applying to State U, where she’s a sure admit for their honors program.

Steve, the bassoon player with OK grades, came in and freely admitted he wanted to apply to some colleges where his GPA and scores suggested he didn’t have a chance, but he wanted to see how far the bassoon thing could get him. He had an audition video file professionally produced, and the applications to the Reach schools are all done. But the applications to the two local schools that have heard the tape, waived the application fee, and basically said “send us an email and you’re in”? Not so much.

Welcome to the world of application clean-up, that gut-wrenching time around Halloween that is nearly all tricks and no treats. All of those nice lists created last spring that had the right mix of Safety, Target, and Reach schools are now just filler in a CA-60, as seniors show their proclivity to be—well, seniors, and think they will live forever, so why not take a few risks with college applications?

The real challenge here is that you get it—you understand why seniors don’t really want to deal with safety schools. Despite your best efforts, seniors don’t see safety schools as Plan B. They see them as Plan G, as in “Gee, too bad you couldn’t get into a good school.” You tell them a good Safety School is a place where they’d love to go to school where their chances of admission are incredibly good—but at the same time, you also know that since getting in is a given, that’s somehow seen by them as one less reason to want to go there.

What to do? Try this:

Stop calling them Safety schools. College is all about stretching to discover more about yourself and your relationship to the world, a place that is the right mix of challenge, opportunity, and support. Safety is in there somewhere, but calling a college Safe portrays images of maternal smothering, paternalistic decision-making about “what’s best for you”, and tapioca pudding.

A Likely college conveys a sense of a school that would *love* to have you, that would welcome you to the fun, frazzled world of higher education with a slap on the back and a crème brulee. Yes, that’s basically tapioca pudding exposed to a blowtorch, but blowtorches are cool. No more Safety schools—they’re Likely schools.

Create a new Likely list. You might be tempted to email Melody and say, “Here’s the list of Likely schools we talked about last spring”, but that list is old news she’s trying to run away from for some reason, and she isn’t coming back. Instead, review the list of schools she’s already applied to, find some common themes, and create a new list of Likelies. Make sure at least one of them will send an admission notice before Christmas, and try to get one that will offer merit money. Students are thrilled by the first school that says yes, and by a school that will pay them to go there. That makes two Likely schools that will remain in play, in case the other schools say no.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

“Why Isn’t the Transcript There?”

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D



There are very few things in life that make high school counselors wish they were still changing schedules, but this is one of them.

“Counseling, how can I help you?”

“Yes, I’m calling because my daughter applied to college this morning, and the college doesn’t have her high school transcript. What’s the hold up?”

“I can help you with that. What’s your daughter’s name?”

“Wendy. Wendy Thomas.”

“Thank you. According to our records, Wendy hasn’t applied to any colleges. Has she reported her application to her counselor?”

“No.”

“Did she tell her counselor she was thinking of applying to college?”

“Not that I’m aware of. But look, I’m telling you now. Why haven’t you sent the transcript?”

Technology has certainly allowed counselors to meet transcript requests with new levels of response time, but there are still some practical limitations to what we can do—especially if the student hasn’t told us they’ve applied to college. If your goal is to limit the number of irate transcript calls you get, try these strategies:

Get ahead of the curve A surprising number of counseling offices are very good at reminding students when *their* part of the application is due, but fewer offices are as up front about when the counseling office sends in the transcript, counselor letter, and other forms-- or the need for students to tell counselors they've applied to college. Now is the time to check your counseling handbook, newsletters, and website to see just what you tell students and parents about the deadlines you have to meet.

Give a brief explanation of the big picture It’s likely parents and students will want to know just why the student has to submit applications by October 15, but you don’t have to send a transcript and counselor letter until November 1. If your office does this, the answer is really pretty simple--- while the student may be filling out 3 or 4 applications, you are sending out hundreds of letters and transcripts, and simply can’t meet every request in 24 hours. That may seem pretty obvious to you, but it probably isn’t all that obvious to them. Make sure you explain this early, and often.

Keep a close eye out for unusual deadlines Explaining all of this ahead of time will really cut down parent and student stress, but it might also raise the anxiety of some parents who think their child is a special case. If they contact you, be sure to do your homework to see if they may be right—some colleges outside the US have earlier deadlines, and a few colleges have special deadlines that are scholarship driven.

If the student is truly an exception, work with the parent to create a turnaround time that’s going to work for everyone. If your research shows that the student really isn’t an exception, you’ll want to explain that “State U has a November 1 application deadline for all students, and they don’t start reading any applications before then. As long as we get the transcript in before then—and we’ve done that for every application for the last 15 years—your child’s application will receive full consideration.”

Make sure you tell everyone about this The best way to get a rumor started that “counseling doesn’t know what they’re doing” is for a student to complain about a missing transcript to a teacher or administrator who isn’t familiar with your policy. It’s always wise to send a reminder to them, or discuss this at the first faculty meeting of the year. This also makes it easier for teachers to send their letters with less stress.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Two Important College Application Trends

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

School counselors are starting the college application season with the discovery of two trends they may not have seen much of in the past.  While these two trends have been popular in certain parts of the country, they seem to be taking hold nationally.  So it’s worthwhile to take a closer look at them, and how to advise students on how to best handle them.

The first trend is self-reported grades.  After years and years of holding up application decisions until the student’s high school sends a transcript, several colleges have decided to let the students report their own grades on the application.  Using the self-reported grades means colleges can make a decision sooner on the applicant—and if the student is admitted, they must have their high school send an official copy of their transcript before they enroll, so they can confirm the student’s grades.

This approach is seen as a win for all kinds of reasons.  In addition to speeding up the process, the responsibility of reporting grades now lies with the student, not the school, meaning the student takes more ownership of the application process in general.  Students tempted to report grades that make them look a little smarter than their transcript might suggest know that they have to send their real transcript in for verification—and if the two transcripts don’t match, the college won’t let the student in.  Add in the savings of clerical time, and the trees saved by not printing paper transcripts to schools the student doesn’t want to attend, and this idea’s time has come.

The key to explaining this to students is to gently remind them to tell the truth when they fill in their own grades.   You’ll also need to make sure students have access to an accurate transcript, but that’s likely easy enough to do.

The second trend that’s popping up is self-reported test scores.  Test scores made a big splash a few years ago when a number of leading colleges made test-score reporting optional—in other words, if you weren’t a great test taker and didn’t want to report your test scores, you didn’t have to.

The list of test optional schools is well over 800 now, and other colleges are thinking about giving students the chance to self-report their test scores.  The process is the same as self-reported grades; the student submits their test scores as part of the college application, and only has to send an official copy of test scores to the one college they plan on attending.

The plusses of self-reported test scores are similar to  self-reported grades, along with one other big bonus—the money students will save.  Once you take the SAT or ACT, it costs serious money to send test scores to colleges.  A student applying to five or six test optional schools could find themselves saving enough to pay for another college application fee—and, once again, this is one less piece of the puzzle to go wrong.

Counselors advising students on self-reporting test scores will want to make sure they thoroughly understand which test scores each college wants.  While most colleges tell students to only send their best scores, some colleges require students to send the results of all test attempts. Failing to disclose all scores at these schools could lead to trouble later on, so it’s important to be clear.  It will also be important to make sure student send official scores to their one college in the spring.  Given how crazy spring of senior year can be, that could prove to be a very important task.