Editor’s note: This story on school counselors is part of Map to the Middle Class, a Hechinger Report series exploring how schools can prepare young people for the good middle-class jobs of the future.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Mariano Almanza was overwhelmed. With an English paper due at the end of the week, an anatomy packet to complete, and an ever-growing pile of math assignments, the 18-year-old was at a breaking point.
“It was just an insane amount of work; I couldn’t handle it and the stress level was beyond anything I’ve ever experienced,” Almanza said. “I left class and came straight to Miss Mack and just burst out crying,” he added.
Miss Mack, as she is known to students at Coronado High School, is Colleen McElvogue, one of the school’s six counselors and the chairperson of its counseling department.
“Miss Mack looked at me and said: ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to get through this.’ I stayed in her office for a whole class hour and we just talked through everything,” Almanza recalled. “Since my parents didn’t get much education, it’s hard to talk to them about my schoolwork and applying to college, or how to plan my time and get everything done. But Miss Mack, I can come to her for just about anything.”
McElvogue has the time to spend an hour with Almanza, as well as attend to her caseload of 230 students, because Colorado is betting that a big investment in counseling can improve educational outcomes for its low-income students. Since 2008, it has spent almost $60 million to hire an additional 270 counselors and provide professional development training at 365 low-income middle and high schools throughout the state, via grants from the Colorado School Counselor Corps.
Aimed at curbing dropouts, improving graduation rates and sending more kids to college and other postsecondary programs, the corps is designed to offset a growing achievement gap in this relatively affluent but increasingly diverse state. Closing that gap and getting kids to continue their training after high school is especially important here: 74 percent of jobs will require post-secondary education by 2020. The state estimates that its population of working adults will be 43 percent non-white by 2040; by 2050 Hispanics will make up 35 percent of its population. But today, just 20 percent of Hispanic adults in Colorado hold a college degree. State officials see the corps as a means to expand opportunities for the growing numbers of first-generation students and a way to offset the threat of a labor shortage.
Colorado’s labor and demographic profiles mirror those in the rest of the country: Jobs that require only a high-school diploma are disappearing, and, while more people nationwide are going to college, Latinos rank behind whites and African-Americans in high school graduation and postsecondary attainment.
So far, the results of Colorado’s commitment to counseling are promising. As of 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, graduation rates among participating schools had risen from 65 percent to nearly 80 percent, while dropout rates declined. Enrollment in high school career-and-technical programs doubled. Completion rates for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid increased to 54 percent, compared to 48 percent for the state, and the share of students taking college-level courses grew to 74 percent, compared to 48 percent at non-funded schools.
But Colorado’s counseling initiative is far from the norm nationwide. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends that a school counselor’s caseload be limited to no more than 250 students. However, the national average is 482 students per counselor. Counselors in Arizona are spread the thinnest, with an average of 924 students each; California ranks second, with 760 students per counselor. As of the 2014-15 school year, Colorado’s student-to-counselor ratio was 383-1, a marked decrease from a 2007 level of 500 students per school counselor.
Investing in school counseling as a tool for helping students climb out of poverty, meanwhile, is not high on the White House agenda. In its 2018 fiscal year budget, the Trump administration proposed deep cuts to the Student Support and Academic Enrichments block grant program, a federal program that earmarks a portion of its spending to help school districts pay for counseling, mental health programs and drug and violence prevention. Congressional leaders disagreed: The omnibus spending bill they passed in March included a $700 million bump to SSAE, bringing the grant to $1.1 billion. Still, that was short of the $1.65 billion originally authorized for the program in 2017.
When deciding how education dollars ought to be spent, politicians rarely consider counseling a high priority, said David Hawkins, executive director for education content and policy for the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. One exception to this political disinterest, he noted, was Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher initiative, which brought national attention to school counselors and the positive impact they have on kids.
But in many quarters, the school counseling profession appears to suffer from an image problem. In a 2016 poll, just 6 percent of respondents rated school counselors as a top priority for education spending. “When there’s a budget cut, counselors are the first to go,” said Hawkins. He points to the major reductions the Philadelphia school system made to its counselor rolls, along with its teaching corps, when the district faced a budget crunch in 2013.
At the beginning of the 2017 school year, William J. Palmer High School, housed in a squat brick building in downtown Colorado Springs, enrolled about 2,170 students, according to state data. As the year progressed, the school lost about 44 students, who dropped out or transferred. (Palmer’s dropout rate is on par with the rest of the state and somewhat lower than other schools in the district.)
Last year, Palmer’s counseling department — a team of nine, a luxuriously large department thanks to Colorado Counselor Corps funding — began digging into the data to learn why and when the school was losing students. A more short-staffed counseling department might have ignored the dropout rate since it aligns with statewide dropouts and could also easily be attributed to the school’s large homeless population — there are three shelters nearby and students often move to other neighborhoods and schools. But the Palmer team was able to go deeper and determine that students began falling behind in tenth grade. “So that’s where we decided to target our efforts: Fresh out of ninth grade, see if we could get our kids caught up and re-engaged so they could overcome that gap before reaching a crisis point where they can’t finish high school,” said Aubrey Ranson, who chairs the school’s counseling department.
The program, now in its first year, serves 11 students, all of them Hispanic. Students take a weekly study skills class, which is designed to help them regulate their emotions, become self-advocates and build a relationship with a counselor. “It’s hard to keep watching these kids coming in here and failing,” said Ranson. “We know they’re smart enough, but what are the issues? Is it teacher conflict, is something happening at home, are they at the right type of high school?”
Ranson admits that being able to research the cause of a problem and then adopt a program to address it, while important, is a rare opportunity in the world of school counseling. With seven counselors serving 290 students each, and an eighth focusing on college-and-career counseling, Palmer has a deep bench. “Having nine counselors here is a total game-changer,” she said.
That flexibility also helps her offer Palmer’s seniors extra attention to help them find their way through one of the most byzantine challenges they’ll face upon graduation: paying for college. In a windowless classroom on a recent weekday, Ranson scrawled numbers on a whiteboard: $25,000 (average annual cost of college); $10,000 (tuition); $10,000 (housing); $2,500 (books); $2,500 (personal needs).
“You’re in this class because you’re going to need the time and the space to apply to at least 50 private scholarships to get even close to being fully funded,” she told the class.
“Oh my god, why am I even trying to do this,” said one student, dropping his head to his desk. Several classmates chuckled.
The class, Advancement Via Individual Determination, AVID for short, aims to level the academic playing field for first-generation seniors in Colorado Spring’s District 11 by providing instruction in financial literacy and advanced study skills and encouraging students to enroll in more challenging classes and earn college credits. Nationwide, AVID trains 70,000 educators yearly to provide academic and social support to low-income, first-generation students from elementary school through college. Colorado Spring’s District 11 began enrolling teachers in AVID training in 2005.
School counseling received a substantial overhaul with the 2003 publication of the ASCA National Model, a framework for counseling that was designed to bring clear standards to the field. Before this, said Jill Cook, ASCA’s assistant director, school counseling was handled very differently in different schools and it wasn’t always based on student needs or rigorously evaluated.
ASCA does not track how many schools and districts employ its model, but Cook said it is being used in schools in all 50 states. “[I]n places like Colorado, where their business and industry owners were clamoring for a better-prepared workforce, they’ve seen the impact,” she said.
Colorado Springs’ District 11, which serves 28,000 students of whom 31.1 percent are Hispanic and 7.6 percent African-American, has made a concerted effort since receiving Counselor Corps funding in 2014 to identify achievement gaps, set goals and measure counselors’ impact. Once counselors started tracking the effects of their work, administrators and principals began taking notice, said Cory Notestine, counseling services facilitator for District 11. “No one knew how to quantify it before, now they’re like: ‘I see the benefit, now how do I get another counselor on staff?’” In spite of an increasingly diverse and high-poverty population, the district is seeing the needle move on academic achievement, college persistence rates, and FAFSA applications, as well as decreased postsecondary remedial education rates.
McElvogue, the chair of Coronado High School’s counseling department, has worked at the school for 13 years. During that time, the department has grown from four to six counselors serving the school’s 1,298 students. Her caseload has dropped from more than 400 students to 230. Today, her department, which adopted the ACSA model in 2015, focuses on three areas: academic counseling, career counseling and social-emotional counseling. In spite of a smaller caseload, more staff and access to software like Naviance to help guide students toward careers, McElvogue said the job of career counselor remains enormously challenging. “We wear so many hats, we try to do everything well, but there’s constantly so much coming at us: Are we informed enough, are we doing enough?”
Depends who you ask. Almanza, the son of a Colorado Springs waitress and a shop owner, is the Coronado senior with whom McElvogue, aka Miss Mack, spent an hour on a recent weekday. An aspiring immigration lawyer, he says she’s doing a pretty good job helping him get his life on track.
“After our talk, Miss Mack gave me a Post-It note that says:
I can and I will.
I believe in you,
“I keep it in my jacket pocket,” Almanza said. “Right here near my heart.”
This story about school counseling was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.