Classroom Technology

Counseling Is a Virtual Experience for Students at Online Schools

By Benjamin Herold — November 12, 2013 6 min read
Kim Rogusky, right, the coordinator of college and career counseling for Commonwealth Connections Academy, the third-largest full-time online school in Pennsylvania, confers with co-worker Mary Cote, an advisory assistant, at the school's counseling offices in Harrisburg. Amid struggles with academic performance and student retention, online schools are striving to more holistically support students they rarely see in person.

Kim Rogusky spends her days helping high school seniors plan for life after graduation, responding to teens’ occasional crises, and plowing through endless administrative tasks—the typical work of a school guidance counselor.

But Ms. Rogusky, who works for the 8,000-student Commonwealth Connections Academy, the third-largest full-time online school in Pennsylvania, does nearly all of her work in cyberspace, interacting with students across the state primarily from her small cubicle in an office building in Harrisburg.

“It’s definitely a challenge to my counseling skills,” Ms. Rogusky said. “It’s hard when [students] can’t see that I’m smiling at them.”

Nationwide, an estimated 310,000 students in 30 states now attend “multi-district, fully online” schools such as Commonwealth Connections, according to the Evergreen Education Group, a consulting firm based in Durango, Colo. As the sector grows, those running the schools—usually states or charter school boards, both of which often contract with private companies for management services—are wrestling with how to better support the academic, social, and emotional needs of students they rarely see in person.

“The challenge is to make sure [full-time online schools] are really providing a comprehensive school counseling program to students,” said H. Eric Sparks, the assistant director of the American School Counselors Association, or ASCA, based in Alexandria, Va. “It’s very much a developing field.”

Maurice E. Flurie III, the CEO of Commonwealth Connections Academy, in his Harrisburg, Pa., office, said his school recently hired four new counselors.

Proponents say that virtual school counseling has its advantages, particularly for students more comfortable interacting online than in person. And some of the counseling practices utilized in full-time online schools are now being taken up by traditional schools seeking to catch up with their tech-savvy students.

But how to best respond to at-risk children who may be located hundreds of miles away and how to ensure the confidentiality of sensitive student information disclosed online remain challenges.

Cost is also an issue: Watchdogs maintain that, given their generally poor academic performance and high student turnover, full-time online schools—particularly independent cyber charter schools run by for-profit management companies—need to be more transparent about how much they invest in support services.

“We have to be able to compare them to traditional brick-and-mortar schools so policymakers can make good decisions about how we’re going to fund these schools,” said Gary J. Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

Emotional Support

The Stanford University Online High School in Stanford, Calif., which charges $16,600 a year in tuition and serves exceptionally motivated students, isn’t the typical full-time online school. But it does embody a trend in virtual guidance counseling.

In 2010, Stanford University Online High had one counselor for its 500 students, twice ASCA’s recommended student-to-counselor ratio of 250:1.

Three years later, the school employs two full-time counselors, who focus primarily on students’ social and emotional needs and offer help with issues such as anxiety, depression, and eating disorders; two academic advisers, who make sure students are enrolling in the right courses; and two full-time college counselors. Roughly 10 percent of the school’s full-time online students receive short-term virtual counseling from the school’s staff, who will refer the students to local professionals for more in-depth treatment when appropriate.

“We realized that full-time online students have the same needs as any adolescent,” said Tracy Steele, the school’s director of counseling. “So we became more of a school and less a set of online courses.”

Publicly funded, full-time online schools are starting to embrace a similar approach, said Mr. Sparks of ASCA. But the challenge, he said, is figuring out how to effectively deliver well-rounded services online while safely storing and limiting access to confidential information that is disclosed via email or an online chat.

“Not having face-to-face interaction can make it more difficult to assess what’s happening with students,” Mr. Sparks said. “Distance can also be a problem—if there’s some type of emergency, the counselor may not even know where the student is.”

Ms. Steele said a nascent network of virtual school counselors has begun exploring protocols for such situations, as well as guidelines for online counseling caseloads and use of specific technologies. But “the best practices are still being developed,” she said.

College Preparation

Maurice E. Flurie III, the CEO of Commonwealth Connections Academy, said his school recently hired four new counselors, to bring its total to 12. It also launched a new online career-planning course, part of a larger shift from making sure students accumulate the credits needed to graduate to helping them prepare for college and careers.

“It all meshes together pretty well,” said Ms. Rogusky, now in her second year at the school. “The time spent with career planning, that’s bringing to the surface more of the social and personal concerns students have.”

Mr. Flurie touted the new approach as beneficial to Commonwealth Connection’s students. The school’s most recently published four-year cohort graduation rate, for the 2010-11 school year, is 83.1 percent, slightly above the statewide rate of 82.6 percent for all schools and second-highest among the dozen cyber charters in operation at that time.

But like many full-time online schools in Pennsylvania and across the country, Commonwealth Connections has struggled with student retention and academic performance. In its most recent annual report filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the school indicated that 1,622 students—roughly 1 in 3—withdrew during the 2011-12 school year. And like the rest of the state’s cyber charters, Commonwealth Connections failed to make adequate yearly progress towards its federally mandated academic performance targets that year, the most recent for which data is available.

Mr. Miron of Western Michigan University said that type of student churn and poor academic performance likely has something to do with the scope and quality of the counseling being provided to students. But he said many such schools—especially those managed in part by for-profit companies, including Commonwealth Connections, which contracts with Connections Education, a division of education publishing giant Pearson—publicly report very little information about what they spend on supportive services.

“When we try to look at these schools’ expenditures, it’s hard to tell how that money is being used,” Mr. Miron said.

Mr. Flurie said his school spends an average of approximately $10,400 per student but has not broken out how much of that goes to counseling services.

Despite the questions, many are excited about the potential for virtual counseling to help further personalize each child’s school experience—in both online and traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

Ms. Steele of Stanford University Online High said that shift is already underway: In a recent survey of ASCA members, she and her colleagues found that more than one-fourth of counselors are already using technology to remotely deliver services to their students, and that almost half believe that online communication can be an effective counseling technique.

“I think there is an opportunity for this model to serve a wider range of students,” she said. “This is just the start.”

Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2013 edition of Education Week as Counseling Is Virtual Experience at E-Schools

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How Schools Can Implement Safe In-Person Learning
In order for in-person schooling to resume, it will be necessary to instill a sense of confidence that it is safe to return. BD is hosting a virtual panel discussing the benefits of asymptomatic screening
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Districts Are Centering Relationships and Systemic SEL for Back to School 21-22
As educators and leaders consider how SEL fits into their reopening and back-to-school plans, it must go beyond an SEL curriculum. SEL is part of who we are as educators and students, as well as
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
The Fall K-3 Classroom: What the data imply about composition, challenges and opportunities
The data tracking learning loss among the nation’s schoolchildren confirms that things are bad and getting worse. The data also tells another story — one with serious implications for the hoped for learning recovery initiatives
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Classroom Technology From Our Research Center During COVID-19, Schools Have Made a Mad Dash to 1-to-1 Computing. What Happens Next?
Districts that purchased devices for hybrid and remote learning will have to determine how to use them for in-person instruction.
8 min read
A line of volunteers carries iPads to be delivered to parents at curbside pickup at Eastside Elementary on March 23, 2020, in Clinton, Miss. Educators are handing out the devices for remote learning while students are forced to stay home during the coronavirus outbreak.
A line of volunteers carries iPads to be delivered to parents at curbside pickup at Eastside Elementary a year ago in Clinton, Miss.<br/>
Julio Cortez/AP
Classroom Technology From Our Research Center Most Students Now Have Home Internet Access. But What About the Ones Who Don't?
Here's what school districts, states, and the federal governments are doing to improve at-home access to digital devices and the Internet.
8 min read
Sam Urban Wittrock, left, an advance placement World History Teacher at W.W. Samuell High School, displays a wifi hot spot that are being handed out to students in Dallas on April 9, 2020. Dallas I.S.D. is handing out the devices along with wifi hotspots to students in need so that they can connect online for their continued education amid the COVID-19 health crisis.
Sam Urban Wittrock, left, an advanced placement World History teacher at W.W. Samuell High School, displays one of the Wi-Fi hotspots that were handed out to students in Dallas in April of 2020. The Dallas school district gave the devices to students who needed them to do schoolwork at home during the pandemic.<br/>
Tony Gutierrez/AP
Classroom Technology From Our Research Center 'A Year of Tremendous Growth.' How the Pandemic Forced Teachers to Master Technology
Educators nationwide say their ability to use technology for instruction improved significantly during the pandemic.
6 min read
Fifth grade teacher April Whipp welcomes back her students virtually during the first day of school at Moss-Nuckols Elementary School on Aug.13, 2020 in Louisa County, Va.
Fifth grade teacher April Whipp welcomes back her students virtually in August during the first day of school at Moss-Nuckols Elementary School in Louisa County, Va.
Erin Edgerton/The Daily Progress via AP
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Whitepaper
5 Strategies for Hybrid Learning Success
Discover five foundational strategies districts should employ when developing their hybrid learning initiatives, complete with concrete steps administrators can take today to ensure sustainable hybrid learning success tomorrow, and beyond.
Content provided by Securly