Counseling in a Data Driven Culture

Counseling students through the college application process is difficult work. This is especially true when working with lower income students who have the weight of the world working against them.  With the rising cost of tuition, stricter admission requirements, and ever-changing financial reporting protocol, it is extremely challenging for a student to navigate this process without help.

Enter the counselor. The hopeless optimist that had an unwavering belief in the potential of each and every student regardless of grade point average, or even more telling, motivation.  This professional has been brought on by a nonprofit organization that boasts a unique model to encourage student achievement, most specifically, college attendance.  (College graduation is a different beast that deserves its own blog entry.)    The goal of this counselor is to get the students into college…by any means necessary…and often the task is met with excitement and fervor.    Throughout the year, however, as she gets to know students more closely, she learns that college is a long shot for some.  Whether it be a homeless student or one who reads at an eighth grade level, her overwhelming confidence and determination morphs into the celebration of small victories… “You made it to the SAT on Saturday!” or “You did not fail a class this semester!”  Managing expectations is a part of the job… but so are data.

Data are essential to the success of many nonprofits. After all, you must show that your program works in order for it to continue to be funded.  This is especially true with our current administration’s drive to cut government funding to programs like TRIO.  Non-profits may have to rely on foundations and private donors for funding.  But what happens when the data tells a story that does not indicate success?  How does the counselor explain that her students have fallen below the mark?  I would argue that she should do just that.

Data can be scary, but it can also highlight areas of need which is critical to the success of programs, especially those designed to improve the lives of others. This information can be used to make adjustments where needed with the goal of delivering a superior product resulting in impressive results.  Additionally, the only way to really see growth is to have firm understanding of where one stands.  Thus, data is critical.

To our counselor friend who is now completely overwhelmed with the tasks of each day, working with students while providing her superiors with data, I say, hang in there! Your work is all for the greater good.  You, my friend, are working to create a more thoughtful, empathetic, perfect society… keep going.

Let’s Blur the Line!

In 2015, I conducted a study about obstacles men of color face in pursuing a college degree. I found that college persistence is a complex issue and there is no one way to solve the national problem surrounding low graduation rates.   We should also take a hard look at how persistence is defined, but I digress.

There were some consistent themes in the narratives of the young men who served as participants of my study. These include preparedness, or lack thereof; institutional shortcomings; family, and the perception that the student’s presence was needed at home; and money, and all that comes along with limited resources.

Some of my recommendations were as follows:

  • The secondary school should work to ensure that students are prepared to handle college-level coursework, in an effort to avoid remedial classes. This entails both a rigorous and supportive curriculum that creates the space for students to develop their voices and participation in the process of their own learning.
  • Postsecondary institutions should have resources in place to support bicultural students at every level, but especially male students of color who have some of the highest college attrition rates. These resources should be promoted across the campus constantly and focused efforts should be made to attract students to these resources throughout the academic year.
  • Secondary counselors should ensure that parents are fully comfortable with financial obligations to the postsecondary institution their student chooses to attend.
  • It is important for secondary and postsecondary institutions to realize that there is a severe need for transition programming for male students of color who exit high school and enter college, especially first generation students. This programming should focus on the various needs of students as they engage this process, specifically locating academic resources, finding success at living away from home, becoming involved in activities, and making friends. It is imperative that bicultural students are also exposed to culturally relevant programming to help them transition to the new environment.

The last of these recommendations is critical. It is speaks to this intentional change that occurs, signifying child to adulthood, boy to manhood, high school to college. Lately, I have thought a great deal about transition and how to be effective in assisting students as they, excuse the cliché, leave the nest. But as I think more about it, the best way to transition a student is not to transition him at all. Instead, the goal should be to create an eight year educational program where the college experience is introduced to students as early as ninth grade. There are schools that do this well. For example, high schools that mandate that students take community college courses as a part of their graduation requirement accomplish several goals.   First, the schools are ensuring that students are comfortable taking college level courses. Next, high schools are allowing students to start working on credits for their degree early resulting in less financial debt later on. Finally, students are learning how to navigate a college campus, learning where the resources, thus becoming more likely to seek help once fully enrolled in college.

My team is currently working with postsecondary institutions to brainstorm ways of integrating the college experience into the high school curriculum. We are eager to expose our students to the possibilities of reimagining education by blurring the line that occurs at the midpoint between high school and college.

The Fight for Educational Excellence

Yesterday, I attended the White House Summit on Educational Excellence for African Americans at Loyola Marymount University.  It was a very fruitful conversation with amazing presentations and panel discussions.  Ethan Smith, Verbum Dei class of 2007, was one of the panelists.

At the end of the summit, David Johns, the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, challenged the group to answer the following questions:  what did I learn, what will I share, and what will I do as a result of being present at the summit?

As I thought about these questions, I reflected upon the dissertation I completed at the end of my doctoral studies at LMU titled Dreams Deferred: A Critical Narrative Analysis of

African American Males In Pursuit of Higher Education.  I think that it is important to note that when I was working on my paper, my participants consisted of a relatively small group of students, so I knew that I would not be able to generalize my findings.  I felt reassured at the Summit when I heard how the panelists’ description of their experiences in college mirrored those of my study participants.  So when David Johns asked what I learned, I was pleased to know that my work was not in vain.  Many of these students have common experiences and that need to be shared, which was the second part of his question.  When asked what I will do as a result, it was confirmed for me that I needed to continue to dedicate my time to fighting for equity, access, and continued support for these students.

The following passage is an excerpt from epilogue to my dissertation.  It is my hope that I can continue this work to affect change.

            Conducting this study has afforded me the opportunity to put a voice to the college dropout numbers that land on my desk.  Through these powerful narratives, I am able to now better understand the hardships that working class African American male students encounter in their efforts to remain on the college campus. In turn, their stories allow me to better prepare the students with whom I currently work, who soon are approaching that next step—transition to college.  I designed and implemented our first transition workshop – a day long workshop where senior students were exposed to a variety of topics that would ensure a successful freshman year, including identifying and locating academic resources, involvement, networking, and money management, as well as social topics like drugs and alcohol, consent, and living away from home.  Additionally, I have made it a part of my job to regularly reach out to alumni in order to remind them that we are still with them; that we are cheering for them; that we are here for them, even after they have graduated.  When they leave the campus, they have not left our hearts.  Moreover, I want them to remember that they still carry the values of St. Peter Claver and that we continue to expect them to be true to their own greatness, just as if they were still ours.  Because, in fact, they are.    

Why Verb?

I have been a member of the Verbum Dei community for eight years, and in that time, I have come to understand how significant this work is.  Verbum Dei is preparing students to create the best life possible for themselves.  The task is arduous, as it is unreasonable to assume that we can tell our community members what is best for their lives, and they just accept it, as if receiving a holiday present or a phone call from an old friend.  In reality, families desire to understand how we plan to assist students in seeking and pursuing opportunities that will allow them to create a successful future, most specifically college graduation.  After all, there are many educational options, and some are tuition free.   We are asking these families to make financial sacrifices in extremely tight situations.

I would argue that this is the difference at Verbum Dei…

The characteristics of our school are quite unique and the student body is comprised of students with varying levels of skill and ability.  One of the most common threads possessed by our students that most of them come from households that have been economically underserved.  More importantly, however, is the combined desire for intellectual acumen and postsecondary success.  When students become seniors, upon reading their college essays, I have come to understand the struggle that they have had to overcome growing up.  These challenges have given them the type of character that is not often seen in people so young, yet, they do not use their circumstances as a crutch.  In fact, that they often fail to realize that their experiences are extraordinary and they must be reminded of what they have overcome, especially during the college application process.

In my opinion, it is the collection of these varying experiences that has created a sense of community that is not often seen in schools.  As students attending a Jesuit school, the young men embrace social justice principles, while collectively working to become proficient at corporate decorum through the Corporate Work Study Program and academically adept by way of a college preparatory education.

For these reasons, we are the best choice for students from underserved communities seeking an amazing opportunity and a worthy vehicle to carry our students to their future aspirations.

A Senior Profile

   As Verbum Dei seniors anxiously await responses from the colleges to which they have applied, I find myself taking the time to reflect on the growth that these young men have experienced during their four years at the Verb.  They have grown academically, socially, and athletically, but also, and most importantly, they have grown in their awareness of the human rights and have learned the importance of advocacy in times of injustice.

   The “Nine Key Themes of Catholic Social Teaching” by Thomas Massaro, S.J is beautifully written piece that eloquently highlights the theme of human rights.  According to Fr. Massaro, if we were all formed in the image of God, then each and every human being, regardless of who they are and what they have done in their lives, should have access to basic human rights including the ability to attain what is needed to live fully and completely.  He argues that when opposition to this belief is experienced, it is the role of the faithful to stand up and speak up.

   At Verbum Dei, our mission is to serve the underserved. It is no secret that many of our students come from homes where resources are limited and parents work tirelessly to make ends meet.  Despite the situation of their home lives, Verbum Dei students come to school each day to make a difference both by expanding their minds educationally and becoming men of character who stand against injustice and who have love for the fellow man. These students serve, on a regular basis, giving of their time to make the lives of others better.  They have worked in soup kitchens, in nursing homes, and have stood in solidarity with the homeless and refugees. They have traveled to the United States border to leave water for those who are crossing and paid homage to those who lost their lives on the journey.   They have raised funds to bring awareness and support young people all around the globe.   They have laughed together, cried together, and have created a bond that will last longer than the brief four years they have together at Verb.

   In a recent lecture I attended, the question was asked of whether two high achieving students, one attending public school and one attending Catholic school, had access to the same education.  I believe the answer is no because there is no common core standard that addresses morality and ethics, love and compassion, forgiveness and faith. It is student who attends the Catholic school that will receive the most priceless gift that can never be returned, and who, by far, receives the superior education.

   So as our seniors sit on the edges of their seats in anticipation of learning which colleges and universities have deemed them worthy of acceptance, they should take comfort in knowing that whatever the result, on this voyage, they have become men of character, who are academically competent and socially aware, and ready to be agents of change that this world needs.

What a strenuous year this has been! I am not sure how I make it through each year, but I thank God every day for keeping me, if only just a half step ahead.

This year there were so many changes to the college application process that I thought I had perfected. From changes to the financial aid application, to the different way for students to register for placement testing, this year was full of changes that impacted the way that we do things here in College Guidance. Through it all, we were able to send our students to college, in a system that was designed to keep them out.

In an effort to keep from being too militant, offensive, or politically incorrect, I will try to express my true feelings. I have a serious concern about how many of these changes are communicated. For example, this year, California State University (CSU) system has decided not to accept paper and online payless registrations for their placement tests. These tests are required for all students who are planning on attending a CSU. I typically have all students take the test, even if their plans do not include a CSU, just as a back-up. It is just a way for students to be on the safe side since there is a window for students to take these tests that usually closes around the first week in May. Originally, students just needed to register for the test by mailing in a form or registering for a place online. Students would pay with a check or money order when they arrive on campus for the test. This year, the way students register, changed. This change was not discussed at the annual CSU conference, which is designed to update counselors on changes for the new year. This change was discovered when the class of 2012 was trying to register for placement testing.

The way the new registrations works is as follows: Students go online to ETS (Educational Testing Service), the same organization that works with the College Board and the SAT. Students have to register online only and they must use a credit card at the time of registration. I can understand the changes, I mean, I am sure that had plenty of no-shows with the old system which would result in spaces being reserved and not used. I understand the benefits of a more streamlined process that would allow for universities in the system to be able to seamlessly retrieve registrations. I truly understand how this helps the CSU system but how does it help the student?

How does this system help the student who does not have access to internet at home? Or a computer? Or better yet, how does this system help the student who does not have access to a credit card? Many would argue, there is access to internet everywhere, and a credit card, who doesn’t have a credit card these days??? The truth is that there are many luxuries, or even things that we would consider basic, that thousands of people do not have access to, including a credit card.

So finding a way to help my students navigate this system is rewarding even if I have to collect cash from a student and use my credit card to pay for a mom does not have a credit card. Unethical? Not in the least. I like to think that it is the price that we pay to have a future of leaders who represent the true America. I know that I will be ok. I am here to make sure that each and every young man who walks these halls will be. And I believe, with the dedicated souls who come to work here every day, they will.