District College Counseling. . . This is How We Do It

By: Nancy Wolfe (pictured left) & Sheri Crigger (pictured right)

Now that you have the 1995 hit by Montell Jordan stuck in your head, let’s talk about how a high school college counselor for a public school system with a large caseload does it on a day-to-day basis.  “I don’t know how you do it,” is a phrase Sheri and I hear a lot. We are the only two District College Counselors in a school system with six high schools.

We each have three high schools at which we are responsible for helping primarily juniors and seniors with the college process. In actual numbers, that translates to a total of 1451 seniors and 1520 juniors whom Sheri and I help with post-secondary plans. Luckily, there are also two Career Coaches who help our students with planning, particularly those students interested in technical careers (their numbers are even more daunting, since they assist students in grades 7-12). Though these numbers are high, seemingly insurmountable at times, we are fortunate that our system has college counselors at all. There are many school systems in Alabama that do not have this position, leaving the responsibility to the high school counselor who is already handling about 50 other things.

The Struggle Is Real

Time is a huge factor and choosing how best to split that time fairly among three high schools is a struggle for each of us. Is it more fair to give the school with the largest senior and junior classes the most time or should we give more time to the school with the students who have more needs? For now, we each spend two days a week at our largest schools and one day a week at each of our other schools (with flexibility in our schedules as needed). Friday is a day we meet to put together our newsletter, plan our monthly parent outreach sessions, compose our weekly e-mails, update our website, add to the district scholarship list, meet with our Counselor Coordinator, and plan our schedules for each school.

Our Focus

In the Fall, we focus on seniors. Not only are we discussing college plans, but we are also making sure everyone has a plan for after graduation. Whether or not that plan is college, we try to connect them to resources that will help them achieve their goals: Career Coaches, jobs, internships, career fairs, military, etc. Our main role is to assist students and parents with college and scholarship applications, FAFSA completion, registering for the ACT/SAT, and providing parent outreach on a monthly basis. Each month we have a parent meeting at each high school and one district-wide evening meeting on a topic such as the college application process, financial aid, scholarships, etc. We also record our presentation on our local educational television station so parents who cannot attend the session can tune in and still get the same information. Currently, we are also planning to host FAFSA help sessions (one being on a Saturday at a local community center) to help families complete their FAFSA applications.

In the Spring, we switch gears and focus on the juniors. Between individual meetings and classroom guidance, we prepare the juniors for their senior year. Sheri and I talk to them about retesting for the ACT or SAT, exploring colleges and majors, lining up college visits, and demonstrate how Naviance can help them manage their applications and transcripts. Our Spring parent outreach sessions focus on preparing to apply to college, affording college, and interpreting test scores and GPAs. In addition, during this time we are keeping track of our seniors and their earned scholarship dollars, college acceptances, and continuing to assist them with submitting FAFSA applications.

Challenging, but Rewarding

Sheri and I are challenged every day to meet the needs of students and their families, but we love this position because the rewards completely outnumber the challenges.  When I first helped one of my students to successfully complete her FAFSA application, I was elated! When one of our students is awarded a QuestBridge match, earns a scholarship, gets into their dream school, or any of the other successes we see every day, the feeling is amazing. Yes, the students and their parents are doing the hard work, but knowing that we had a small part in that success is thrilling. Sometimes we don’t even know how to answer the question of how we do it, we just make it happen. Recently we came up with a lighthearted way to remind us of our purpose on days when we are feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, or just darn tired. We will text each other the hashtag #forthechildren to help us refocus on the passion that we have for our students.