The end of the school year is always a busy and stressful time for college and career counselors. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has added a sense of heaviness to the usual work overload – and a sense of urgency to the challenge of keeping students motivated.
Our team at the Fort Worth Independent School District truly exhausts every possible means of communications known to man to reach as many students as possible. In my role as a postsecondary success coordinator, I work directly with counselors and postsecondary success specialists, who in turn work one-on-one with students on advanced academics, on Texas’ College, Career, and Military Readiness requirements, on college and program applications, and more.
Reaching every student in a large urban district with 87,000 students is a formidable assignment. But at Fort Worth, we have a secret weapon: the GO Centers.
This unique department has the goal of helping students see pathways to career and college. It does this via physical spaces in schools and other locations – offering a tangible place to find support from real people – where students can do research on their options and navigate the maze of financial aid. An average of 12,000 of our students utilize these centers each year.
Our district’s Go Centers are staffed by college and career readiness coaches whose job is to prepare students in the 9th and 10th grades for their next steps after high school. For 11th and 12th grades, we partner with colleges such as Texas Christian University, University of Texas-Arlington, and University of North Texas. They come onto the school campuses to advise students, connect via social media, and reach out via email.
Another department in our district handles all things FAFSA. It provides in-person and virtual events to ensure all Fort Worth students have plenty of opportunities to receive help completing this crucial federal financial aid paperwork accurately and thoroughly.
Reaching students during the pandemic
I’ll be the first to admit that even with all of these resources, it has been a hard year for counselors in Fort Worth. The pandemic seems daunting and exhausting. I have to break my work down into small increments, focus on handfuls of students at a time.
While we may not be able to reach as many students via large events as we used to, we need to keep utilizing our communications tools with individual students, because that’s what’s helping us keep them engaged.
Our counselors are putting in extra hours to reach students one on one, even if it requires home visits, to make sure students are meeting their application deadlines amid the day-to-day academic grind. We also strategize as a team to figure out how to improve student outcomes during this unusual time.
The expectations for student success haven’t been relaxed because of the pandemic. Texas has state accountability for certain things in postsecondary readiness, such as the CCMR standards, that our students are still expected to reach.
Strategies for communicating about the future
The good news is that students who were very motivated to go to college are mostly still on track. The ones who were on the fence will require a little more support and encouragement; they are usually moving more slowly with their decisions this year because of the uncertainty related to COVID.
Here are examples of prompts we use to motivate them to think about their futures:
- “On the other side of COVID, what will you be doing?” This reminds them that the pandemic will end one day.
- “Where do you want to be next year?” Offer some possibilities that may be the result of their action (or inaction). Working? Repeating high school classes? At college? In the military?
- “What do you need to be able to move forward?” This addresses the barriers they may be feeling – which gives you an opening to offer resources and answer questions.
- “Are you on the fence about any of your decisions?” If they say yes, follow up to get to the reasons why.
Review your data to understand the outreach that has been most successful across your team and your district and strategize how to leverage what’s already working well. Also identify the students who may have specific needs – for example, those who haven’t passed their end-of-course exams or met various graduation requirements.
Coordinate with the school to find out when students might be present in person and try to connect with them in person, whether it’s a textbook pickup or an end-of-course testing date. Set up a table by the entrance. Be a part of what’s already going on rather than setting up a separate event that adds one more calendar item.
An early resource for long-term success
Starting when students are in pre-K, our district uses college and career planning software called Xello to share information and keep students motivated. The program uses age-appropriate interactions to encourage students’ self-discovery. Throughout their academic journey, children look at things like personality, learning style, favorite topic clusters, and goals after high school – as well as career pathways, real-world skills, and how individuals can make the world better.
At the high school level, our counselors can view pertinent information in the students’ profiles and assessments so we can help them make educated decisions that are relevant to their goals. In addition, this year we’ve been able to integrate Common App into Xello so students can complete college applications, get letters of recommendation, and request transcripts.
We have seen utilization of Xello skyrocket this year. One reason is that counselors and students turned toward digital tools to stay connected and on track. At our high schools alone, nearly 42,000 students have logged in this year.
It’s easy to get discouraged when you feel you’ve done everything you can but you’re still not getting the response you wanted – and it can feel like administrators are piling on with top-down pressure to hit metrics. Here’s what I tell people when they feel down: Keep in mind that you are helping someone’s child reach their postsecondary goals. And then get online or in your car and put one more note in one more mailbox.
Dr. Tonni Grant is a Postsecondary Success Coordinator within the Collegiate Programming and Advisement Department for the Fort Worth Independent School District. She has more than 20 years of experience as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and coordinator at the campus and district levels. Their district uses Xello to prepare K-12 students for future success with an engaging program that builds self-knowledge, personalized plans, and critical life skills.
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