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Split Personality

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Nationally, course-taking for the college-bound isn't what it should be--a circumstance blamed at least in part on faulty guidance.

One student who turned to a private counselor is Lyndsey McKee, 19, now in her first year at Columbia University's Barnard College. As a high schooler in eastern Ohio, she felt she wasn't getting enough attention from her suburban public school's two overworked counselors. They each oversaw two of the school's four grade levels, or about 400 students apiece. The American School Counselor Association says 100 students is an ideal caseload, with a 1-to-300 ratio as the recommended maximum.

In two one-on-one meetings with students during the junior year and three during senior year, "basically they told us what our class rank was, made sure we had fulfilled requirements to graduate," McKee says. "There really wasn't a lot of guidance on where you should apply" to college.

"I didn't blame [the counselor] for not having enough time," McKee says. "It was just too many people for him to handle."

As McKee began her senior year, her parents hired the same college consultant that many of her peers were using. Their $500 bought two meetings a month with the counselor, but McKee was not satisfied with the experience. The counselor did not offer enough critical input on application essays, McKee says, and she tended to go away on vacation just when McKee wanted to reach her most. But the kicker, McKee says, is that the consultant had overextended herself. "It was just that she was too busy ... she just had too many people. There wasn't enough time for everybody"-- the very same problem McKee had encountered with her public school counselor.

That, too, had been a problem for Capital High's counselors. Back in their crisis time, they each took one grade level of students--leaving one person responsible for all the seniors. Now, they divide the student body alphabetically. That way, they get to know families of siblings who enter the school, and they share the senior-year angst and paperwork crush. As counselor Susan Tinney puts it, "You can't hold the hand of 350 seniors, but you can hold the hand of 90 to 100."

A handful of groups tackled the issue of improving school counseling during the past decade. But the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis, a leading supporter of the initiatives, has directed its energies elsewhere lately, and some observers sense waning philanthropic interest nationally in the topic. One of the only major education reform efforts now placing an emphasis on the improvement of school counseling is Equity 2000, a project of the College Board, which published the critical "Keeping the Options Open" report. Equity 2000 is underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Dewitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, and the Ford Foundation, all based in New York City, as well as by an anonymous donor.

The K-16 project attempts to eliminate the disparities in academic achievement and college-going between minority and white students, especially in the pursuit of math and science. The program hangs its hat on research that came out in 1990--the year Equity 2000 began. Researchers found that for low-income and minority students with expectations of going on to college, successful completion of algebra and geometry boosts them into college at the same rate as their nonminority peers with the same academic experiences.

Nationally, course-taking for the college-bound isn't what it should be--a circumstance blamed at least in part on faulty guidance. A glimpse at the courses that students who take the ACT college-admission test and intend to go to college shows the deficiencies: Only 60 percent take the college-preparatory curriculum of at least four years of English, three years of math at the level of algebra and higher, three years of science, and three years of social sciences, according to the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc.

Equity 2000 focuses on eliminating academic tracking and requiring all students to complete algebra, geometry, and other college-prep courses. It also provides professional development to teachers and school counselors and academic enrichment and safety nets, such as Saturday academies, to ensure students' success.

"Guidance counselors are a key part of Equity 2000," says Vinetta C. Jones, the executive director of the program, which is based in Washington. The program seeks to transform the role of the guidance counselor from a keeper of gates that shut students out to advocates for "inclusive academic programming," an Equity 2000 publication says. "Guidance counselors must be advocates for all kids to be able to reach the high standards, to have all options open to them," Jones adds.

In its six pilot sites--encompassing 14 districts, 700 schools, and 500,000 students--guidance counselors have been pushed to become responsible for student outcomes. To that end, the program requires schools to use data collected about students and broken down by such categories as race, gender, and ethnic group. That way, counselors and others can see which students are in which kinds of courses and "what do we need to do differently to help kids succeed," Jones says.

The program has seen good results: More students are taking and passing algebra and geometry, enrolling in Advanced Placement classes, taking college-entrance exams, and receiving scholarships. As it moves from the pilot stage to national dissemination, Equity 2000 plans to run a series of workshops for school counselors and those who teach or supervise them, beginning next month. In about 18 months, program officials hope to have results from the first long-term study that follows Equity 2000 students into college.

Practicing counselors acknowledge that they had little or no discussion of academic or college counseling in their programs.

The American School Counselor Association is also moving to get schools to analyze data about their counseling programs. A forthcoming guide for implementing the standards will contain a 20- to 30-page self-assessment that schools can use to measure the effectiveness of their counseling programs. The association devised the measurement in conjunction with ACT.

Out of the Equity 2000 program, Jones says, grew a project aimed at fixing the education and training of counselors. The DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund is supporting an initiative to transform school counseling by improving the graduate-level preparation of school counselors. Meshing with the goals of Equity 2000, the undertaking aims to give counselors-in-training the skills and knowledge to take on more of an advocacy and academic-advising role in order to help all students achieve in rigorous, challenging courses.

Practicing counselors acknowledge that they had little or no discussion of academic or college counseling in their programs. Some regret that; others don't. The counselors here at Capital High School dismiss the need to acquire that knowledge in a master's program. "Nuts and bolts" stuff like that, they say, you learn as you go.

In many counselor education programs, students take primarily the same courses, whether they intend to counsel high school students, dysfunctional families, or recovering drug addicts. Most of the courses are taught by psychologists, not educators.

To make up for such a gap in the graduate curriculum, Burtnett, the association executive-turned-consultant, teaches a course at the University of Virginia's campus in Fairfax County, a suburb of Washington.

Counseling the College-Bound Student gets a steady stream of enrollees every semester. At a recent session, the course drew 13 students, all women: school counselors, parents of high school students, and a private school teacher who wanted to be able to answer some of the college-related questions her students pose to her instead of to the less accessible school counselor.

Sailing through statistics and tips, Burtnett dispenses personal anecdotes along with inside information on how the college-admission process really works. He illustrates the power of information students get from counselors by telling how, in the 1950s, his high school counselor's office had on display just one college catalog, from what was then Shippensburg State Teachers College in Pennsylvania. Not only was that where he enrolled, but it was where his brothers went, where he met his wife, and where his daughter went.

The Education Trust is hoping to eliminate the need for such a class as Burtnett's. The organization, which promotes high academic standards, is running the counselor-education-reform project paid for by DeWitt Wallace. Right now, the Education Trust is working with 10 universities that each won a $65,000 grant from DeWitt Wallace to plan how they would make over their counselor education programs. The Education Trust will recommend four to six of those institutions for additional grants to make their ideas a reality.

Stephanie Robinson, a principal partner at the Education Trust, who is leading the guidance-counseling initiative, says the project is addressing the "two camps" in school counseling. "Our premise is counselors need to change from a mental-health model to an academic model," she says. "What we're talking about is not just changing the stripes on the zebra, but not having the zebra at all."

But Perry, the ASCA's executive director, argues that you can't tease apart the different services children need. "The truth of the matter is," she says, "you really can't separate" the three areas of development. "Personal-social issues certainly impact ability to learn."

Capital High's counselors agree. "In the midst of an academic-counseling session, you'll get a personal problem," counselor Tinney says. Whether a conversation takes a tangent or gets interrupted, she says, "it's not often we close the door and get to do anything start to finish."

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