Split Personality

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The guidance counselors here at Capital High are among the lucky ones, and they know it.

Unlike many of their colleagues in other high schools nationwide, they are treated like professionals. They have a manageable workload, turn to assistants for help with paperwork, and are never asked to pull duty monitoring lunch in the cafeteria.

In public high schools elsewhere, one counselor might have to deal with a caseload of 700 students. In this state capital's main high school, three counselors and a school psychologist each keep track of the needs of fewer than 300 students out of the 1,120-member student body.

Help with clerical duties is another luxury they have--unheard of in some schools. Every day, a paid secretary oversees student use of the classroom- size library of college and career information, and a full-time volunteer helps organize and retrieve student records.

The counselors here also do not have to mete out discipline or stand watch over school bus arrivals and departures at this handsome brick campus on the edge of town. That's all handled by Capital High's three assistant principals.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that the counselors at Capital High School have, over the past 10 years, more than doubled the percentage of students who go to college. That rate now stands at 65 percent, or about the national average. A decade ago, before the two downtown high schools here were consolidated into newly built Capital High, it was more like one in three students for the two schools.

But the counselors' luck was made, not born. They had to hit emotional bottom before they knew they had to make improvements in the way they did their jobs. Five years ago, the counselors realized they were so overworked that it was sapping their ability to deal effectively with students. "At one point," recalls counselor Karen Hopkins, "at 7:30 in the morning, I was in the career center crying--overwhelmed."

So they sat down with their principal and an assistant superintendent from the district, figured out what was wrong, and went about fixing it. "We decided we had to be in charge of what we did," Hopkins says. "We couldn't take on everything in the school." Now, she says, "It's a hundred times better."

In many ways, the changes that the counselors at Capital forged for themselves mirror the kinds of reforms that some advocates are recommending for the field of guidance counseling nationwide: more prevention and outreach rather than just reaction to requests and emergencies, an improved focus on academics and getting students into college, more and better communication with parents, and relief from some of the administrative and clerical chores that get dumped on counselors.

Counseling cannot continue to be seen as a nonessential, poorly defined " extra" that high schools provide, the reformers argue, if students are to be steered to the right courses and do what is necessary to get into selective colleges. Instead, they say, it has to become more relevant, more integrated into the teaching and learning that goes on schoolwide. " If [schools] supported college counseling one-fourth of how they supported athletics," says Denver educational consultant Steven Antonoff, once students got to college, "there would be less transferring." Federal statistics show about 30 percent of college students transfer from their first institution to another--an inconvenience at best.

But the reality is that counselors face an almost impossible task--trying to juggle the differing needs of hundreds of students. Whether it's figuring out the best education plan for a 16-year-old dropout who has dropped back in at midsemester, coping with a pregnant student who is too terrified of her father to tell her family about her condition, or listening to a college-bound girl's worries about financial aid, it all falls to the counselor. They are the proverbial safety net. But that catch- all function leaves counselors little time to do a few tasks well and makes their role unclear in the eyes of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and even the counselors themselves.

Like anyone backed into a corner, some counselors resort to questionable tactics of self-preservation.A recent graduate of a well-regarded magnet school in Washington recalls that her guidance counselor didn't even discuss college or the SAT college-entrance exam with students until it was almost too late--October of senior year. And even then, if a student sought her out individually, the woman reserved her time for those with high grade point averages or well-to-do families, says the graduate, who did not want her name used.

Now a first-year student at an Ivy League university, the young woman says that until the counselor calculated her GPA early in her senior year, the counselor had little time for her and advised her to look at less selective schools. But after the counselor learned the girl's grades put her in the top 10 students in the class, she suddenly became much more available and even tried to recruit the girl for a top liberal arts college in New England.

While such treatment angered her then, the student has figured out the counselor's logic: "Why waste all that information [on every member of the class], when she can focus on a few people that she thinks can get into a really good institution? It makes her look better.

"It's like a survival-of-the-fittest type thing," the student says. "If she doesn't think highly of you, then she selects you out of it."

The ability of guidance counselors to shepherd students toward college and challenging careers is viewed by some as an integral part of the school reform movement's emphasis on holding all students to rigorous standards. But, so far, the counseling profession has been left on the sidelines.

Concerns about the field were raised more than a decade ago when an independent commission convened by the College Board, the New York City- based sponsor of the SAT, issued "Keeping the Options Open," an influential report on guidance counseling. "Counseling is a profession in trouble," the 1986 study declared. "Too often," it said, "counselors are assigned tasks--administrative routines, maintaining records, and supervising students--that make inadequate use of their special skills and talents."

Often, the report further said, the students who need information and assistance the most--minority-group members and the poor--are the least likely to get it. They attend crowded urban schools with the fewest resources and the largest counselor-to-student ratios.

In addition, "Keeping the Options Open" noted the importance of improving schools' guidance and counseling functions for the country's future economic health.

A dozen years later, the need for top-notch counseling is even higher, as are the stakes for students who may see counselors as keepers of the gates leading to all future opportunities. As the recent Washington graduate puts it, the counselor is "playing God with our lives."

Is the profession up to so tall an order? Not at the moment.

Even the American School Counselor Association acknowledges a great degree of unevenness among the counseling programs populated by the nation's nearly 88,000 counselors in public elementary and secondary schools. To help correct that situation, the Alexandria, Va.-based group, which serves counselors at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, issued the first-ever voluntary standards for school counseling last fall. "One of the things school counseling has suffered from is not having any kind of national standards," says Nancy Perry, the executive director of the association.

If school counseling is uneven, counselor preparation is downright pothole- ridden. Master's degree programs in counseling are not designed to prepare school counselors for academic, career, and college counseling, practitioners and observers agree.

"I defy you to find me a place in 500 or so counselor education programs where anybody puts any emphasis on counseling people for academic success," says Frank Burtnett, a former executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which represents high school counselors and college-admission officers.

In the early part of this century, guidance counseling was designed to help students pick occupations and secure jobs.

"Counselor education today is focusing too much on a big umbrella of things," Burtnett, a former guidance counselor, says. "We're into human growth and development, we're into self-esteem and self-actualization, and we're not dealing with the nuts and bolts of child and adolescent development," he says. "Seventeen-year-olds are facing educational choices, they're trying to tie those choices into an educational pattern, and we're out there doing warm, fuzzy things."

Now a consultant in Springfield, Va., Burtnett says he salutes those counselors who teach themselves what they need to know. "Many people learn to do this. They learn to do it on the job with the dragon fire coming right at their posteriors."

In the early part of this century, guidance counseling was designed to help students pick occupations and secure jobs. The 1930s brought a recognition that there were three main parts to the guidance process: educational, vocational, and personal-social services.

Secondary school guidance counseling got a lot of attention--and an infusion of federal dollars--following the passage of the National Defense Education Act of 1958. The law, passed shortly after the launch of Sputnik, unleashed money to get more students to pursue postsecondary education, in math and science especially--all the better to fuel the space race against the Soviet Union. One purpose of the federal money was to increase the number of secondary school counselors who not only could guide students into college and into math and science careers, but also advise students whose personal problems might thwart academic success, according to the American School Counselor Association.

That meant a focus on two sets of students, the college-bound and the troubled--an approach that missed many students in the middle and set up a split personality in school counseling that persists to this day.

In the 1960s, schools were urged to provide counseling programs that focused on the overall development of the individual student. And in the '70s, "career education became very big, so that was thrown in again," says Perry, the American School Counselor Association director. Then during the 1980s, state regulations defined more clearly the role and function of guidance counselors, and the term "school counselor"--as opposed to "guidance counselor"--came into wider use, according to the association.

"What [school counseling] evolved to," Perry says, "was a ... shopping mall of services."

To take stock of the profession today, the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Alexandria, Va., polled its members and other counselors last year. It found that counselors considered personal and college counseling their most important duties (that split personality again), yet they carried larger-than-recommended student caseloads and only spent about half their time in direct contact with students.

A lot of what the survey reveals are issues that school reformers and the ASCA's National Standards for School Counseling Programs are both trying to get at. The association's standards, for instance, say counselors should spend 70 percent to 80 percent of their time in direct contact with students.

Counselors also tend to be the staff members saddled with organizing the administration of a school's standardized testing. But the standards argue that counselors are trained to interpret cognitive, aptitude, and achievement tests, not figure out which teacher proctors which room and which students should sit there. Longtime counselors point out you don't need a master's degree to do that.

The standards, which Perry says have already been ordered in bulk by states and districts, are not without their skeptics and detractors. Some wish they would place greater emphasis on high academic standards, equity, and making college more accessible to all. And the standards still champion attention to all three areas of student development-- academic, career, and personal-social.

"My problem is they try to cover the waterfront too much in a traditional way," says Patricia J. Martin, a senior program manager at the Education Trust, a Washington group working on a project to improve the profession. "My greatest fear is when people pick them up, look at them, and read them, they're going to say, 'This is what we've done. We're fine. Business as usual.'"

Burtnett, the former NACAC executive director, calls the standards "a positive step."

"Counseling's been that elusive thing," he says. "We know what we want to have happen in the English classroom. We know what we want to have happen in calculus. We haven't put our finger on what we want to have happen in counseling." But, he says, the standards should be constantly re-evaluated. "Those standards need to change, and grow, and mature."

In the survey for NACAC, the respondents say college counseling is one of the most important tasks they handle, and nearly all report they have responsibility for it. But they devote only about 25 percent of their time to it--one reason experts suggest they aren't more effective.

A private counselor has the time not only to meet with the student and her family but also to visit colleges, unlike harried school counselors.

"A lot of counselors are dealing with course scheduling, personal problems, special-needs students, and the problem is, unfortunately, not enough public school districts have supported [high school] counseling as much as they should," says Antonoff, the Denver consultant, who specializes in college counseling. "Give them more money, let people get off and visit colleges, give people more responsibility for really learning about colleges," he says.

While a national survey shows most high school students turn to their counselors for advice on colleges, in the end the counselors' influence is outweighed by other factors.

According to the annual survey of U.S. college freshmen conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, 63.7 percent of first-year students at all types of higher education institutions nationwide last fall said they had sought their high school counselors' advice. But when they were asked what reasons were very important in the selection of their colleges, only 8.2 percent pointed to the advice of a high school guidance counselor. The counselor ranked 13th out of 20 reasons--below the influence of friends, relatives, and rankings in national magazines.

That was the case with Amanda Kugel, an 18-year-old senior at Capital High. Ms. Kugel says that as valuable as the college-admission help her counselor provided was, the location of a prospective college figured more heavily in deciding where to enroll than did her counselor's opinion.

All eight of the colleges Ms. Kugel applied to--mostly public universities in the Southeast--sent her letters of acceptance, including Clemson University in South Carolina. Her counselor, Karen Hopkins, "pushed for Clemson," Ms. Kugel says. But when she went to visit the campus, Ms. Kugel found the 11,000-resident town of Clemson "too little." In the fall, she'll head off to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in a city with a population of 165,000.

A small but growing cadre of students and parents, dissatisfied with the kind of college and financial-aid advice high school counselors are able to provide, is voting with its feet. That means more and more business for private counselors, such as Antonoff in Denver. The Independent Educational Consultants Association in Fairfax, Va., has seen its membership double in the past two years to 250. And, says Executive Director Mark Sklarow, his organization only represents full-time consultants, even though most people do college counseling part time. A majority of his group's members, he says, are refugees from public school counseling.

The UCLA survey of freshmen shows that in 1993, the first time the question was asked, 1.6 percent of first-year students at all institutions had hired a private college counselor. By last fall, the rate had increased to 1.9 percent.

Among those students attending private colleges, the growth was even more pronounced. Between 1993 and last year, use of paid counselors went up nearly a full percentage point for those attending private two-year colleges and those attending private universities. Fully 6 percent of those in private universities last fall had hired a college consultant. Families footing a private college bill may be more able to afford a consultant and may be more motivated to do so when tuition, room, and board can run $120,000 for four years.

Sklarow says the chief reason parents and students seek out independent counselors is the limited time a school counselor can devote to an individual student. In addition, two working parents have less time to help their child pick a college. A private counselor has the time not only to meet with the student and her family but also to visit colleges, unlike harried school counselors.

The tab, however, can be hefty. Most college consultants charge $40 to $50 an hour, while in New York City, an hourly fee can run $150. Some offer package deals, priced from $700 to $3,000.

But Antonoff says what really makes the difference between the caliber of help a student can get from a public school counselor and from someone like him is his firsthand familiarity with colleges. "A good educational consultant spends weeks a year visiting colleges," he says.

College consultants acknowledge that some school counselors resent the private consultants and refuse to give them information about the student. But, Sklarow says, his members do not see themselves competing with the public school counselors: "It should be a great team relationship."

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."

Vol. 17, Issue 33, Page 31-36

Published in Print: April 29, 1998, as Split Personality
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