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Better Together

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Teamwork and communication are the foundation of successful counselor-CBO partnerships.

When you boil it down, public school counselors and community-based organizations focused on higher education have one common goal: to get their students to college.

But public school counselors, especially those in schools with underserved student populations, also have to juggle a lot of other duties: managing class scheduling for entire grade levels or the whole school, helping families navigate special education requirements like individualized education plans, and attending to students’ often fragile mental health and emotional needs.

College counseling can understandably get moved to the back burner on a public school counselor’s crowded stove. That’s where community-based organizations (CBOs) that help students get to and through come in.

To establish a strong relationship and set students up for success, public school counselors and CBO leaders suggest three things:

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate—on both sides
  • Pay attention to a school community’s nuances to ensure you’re serving them well
  • Figure out how to take work off a school counselor’s plate

Communication is Key
The most important part of the relationship between Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Scholars, a CBO that serves “academically ambitious first-generation students from under-resourced communities in Chicago,” is regular communication, said Rachael Accavitti, vice president of programs at Chicago Scholars.

Chicago Scholars hosts a yearly lunch for counselors to update them on students’ success and plans for the next year. One of their team members also meets regularly with someone from Chicago Public Schools’ Office of School Counseling and Postsecondary Advising for updates from both sides.

Recently, Chicago Scholars and Chicago Public Schools expanded those lines of communication even further by signing a data-sharing agreement, Accavitti said. That allows both sides to see a student’s progress in Chicago Scholars’ program and empowers the counselors to give students a nudge if they’re late on completing a portion of the program.

And that demonstrates the ultimate goal of this increased communication, Accavitti said: to support the students.

“I’ve seen, especially in the last year [during the COVID-19 pandemic], the way in which it is easier for a student in this virtual space to not show up, to not be reached,” she said. “I think that (having) more trusted people in their lives…reaching out to provide this support, to create this net of resources to catch them, has been vital.”

Pay Attention to Nuance
When Jennifer Nuechterlein, college and career counselor at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, New Jersey, has meetings with her students, they almost always include their family members.

She works in a rural/suburban school district about two hours from New York City and said her students’ families are heavily involved in their college decisions these days. Candice Mackey, college counselor at Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES) in Los Angeles, sees the same thing, despite working in a much more urban environment than Nuechterlein.

For Mackey, the CBOs that succeed in her community are those who offer wraparound services to students and their families—and she thinks that’s key regardless of where your school is based.

“You’re always going to have working parents in your community, and they’re always going to need support through the weekends, in different languages, and in different formats—virtual and in-person,” Mackey said.

Ruth Lopez is one example of how paying attention to a student’s nuanced situation helps. Lopez is a senior at LACES, graduating in June 2021 and heading to College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. In addition to meeting with Mackey regularly, she also met with an adviser from College Match, a community-based organization that helps “talented students from low-income families get into and graduate from the nation’s top colleges and universities.”

Ruth is Latina and her parents’ only child. It’s hard for her family to talk about money, she said, and her parents worried about her living away from home. But Mackey and Ruth’s College Match adviser worked together to answer all of the family’s questions—bringing in Spanish translators to talk to Ruth’s parents, sitting with Ruth as she video chatted with The College Board, and giving her personalized feedback on her essays.

Having both her counselor and her adviser in her corner greatly eased Ruth’s mind, she said.

“They can answer questions the other one can’t answer,” she said. “That made it easier for me to ask them questions and not feel shy about it, because they would discuss it and brainstorm together.”

Make Counselors’ Lives Easier
Learning that nuance has also been key for Peggy Jenkins, the founding director of Palouse Pathways, a community-based organization in Moscow, Idaho, that provides information and resources on college and career planning to students in the area. The schools Palouse Pathways serves vary widely: Some are in logging or farming communities, while others are in college towns. Learning what those counselors’ work environments are actually like has been key, Jenkins said.

The other key: Offering to “take something off counselors’ plates,” Jenkins said. When she and one of her board members met with principals and counselors from the Moscow school district a few years ago, they asked that question, and the counselors immediately asked for help with preparing students for college admission tests.

For three to four years, Palouse Pathways was able to train and pay a few local teachers and hold test prep classes in the evenings. This year, a school district approached the organization and asked them to write a grant for summer classes to help students recapture credits they may have lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Working to help in a way the schools want and need is immensely beneficial for the counselor-CBO relationship, Jenkins said.

Counselors “are people who are mostly really overworked and stressed out,” Jenkins said. “If they don’t respond to you, it’s not necessarily because they don’t want you there. If you can get a working knowledge of what life is like for them and what their responsibilities are, that can make a big difference.”

Pressley Frevert is a freelance writer living in North Carolina.

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