Getting personal is what it takes to help kids

Print More
Veronica Anderson, editor

Veronica Anderson, editor

Guidance counseling is about getting personal, so I’ll begin by doing so myself.

As a high school student, I visited the counseling office three times in four years. The first was a mandatory meeting—each freshmen was pulled out of class for a brief, inconsequential question-and-answer session. (I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember the counselor was put off when I laughed at one of her inquiries.)

I paid my second visit when I was a senior and needed my counselor to complete a required recommendation for an application to a highly selective university. My third visit was to complain to the department chair about the mediocre reference that my counselor had written. The chair did not know me personally but, taking note of my strong academic record, said simply, “I’ll fix this.” I can only wonder what my counselor was thinking.

I subsequently received a reference that reflected my work and abilities and was accepted into the college of my choice.

Initially I got a bum steer, but I was fortunate to have access to another counselor who looked out for students’ best interests. In contrast, many Chicago public school students who need guidance far more than I did have no contact with a counselor.

As Lincoln Park junior Jocelyn Krause told CATALYST for this month’s issue, “I have never seen my counselor. I don’t even know what she looks like.”

In terms of numbers, guidance counselors are waging a losing battle—at the high school level, the School Board pays for only one counselor for every 360 students, a sure formula for anonymity. Five years ago, the board attempted to rectify the situation by requiring every high school to create an advisory period. There, teachers would meet regularly with 15 or so students to discuss problems and plans for the future. The thinking was, if kids felt teachers and other adults in the school knew them better and cared what happened to them, they would perform better in class.

But that’s not what happened, according to a 2001 study of Chicago’s high schools. For example, at Kelvyn Park, advisories consisted of assemblies held every five weeks. At Farragut, they were 10-minute sessions held four days a week. Northwestern University researcher G. Alfred Hess Jr., who conducted the study, said that central office provided no leadership to redirect the advisory program and set it on a productive course.

However, that may be changing. CPS’s Office of Strategic Planning has convened a task force to study advisory and make recommendations for improving it. If they’re taking suggestions, here are a couple worth considering:

Tap one of the growing number of outside tutoring and mentoring groups to develop an advisory curriculum and help the system reach more of its students. The College and Career Readiness Network, for example, proposes creating an electronic mentoring system that would link corporate executives and high school seniors via email and online forums.

“Many kids have no direction in thinking about college,” says Bank One Vice President Joan Klaus, who founded the Network. “We see an awful lot of [average] students who would consider college if they had someone to push them.”

Check out the award-winning counseling program at south suburban Rich South High School, where counselors work with a set of students for four years and are expected to take the initiative. Kids often don’t see the relevance of talking to guidance counselors; adults in the system must take responsibility for drawing them in and showing how they can help them.

Beyond model programs, central office must work to inculcate the idea that high schools are supposed to prepare students for a productive life after high school, not simply get them to pass tests.

ABOUT USCongratulations to Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher who won the International Reading Association’s print media award for her April 2002 cover story, “Scaling the Reading Wall: Chicago’s new strategy to teach all children to read.”