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So Many Choices. School Counselors Help Students Navigate the Future

Arizona ranks lowest in the country for school counselor to student ratio. At GHS, Aja DeZeeuw is responsible for more than double the recommended ratio of 1 counselor for every 250 students. Photo by Patti Daley

High school students face a lot of choices. Most local students aspire to higher education, many have an eye toward the trades, a few to the military and some to something else.

“My job is to help them figure out what that something else is and help them prepare for it,” says Aja DeZeeuw, “I want students to know and feel they can be successful at that next level.” 

As school counselor for the more than 500 students at Globe High School (GHS), Aja is responsible for three critical pillars of student success:

  1. Clarify and track each student’s path to graduation.
  2. Prepare each student for their next step — college or career.
  3. Provide the socio-emotional training and support students need to achieve.

“We need to keep them motivated, keep them advancing,” says Aja. “We don’t want them held back by any barrier.” 

The State of Arizona requires an ECAP (Education and Career Action Plan) for all students in grades 9-12, a job which largely falls to the school counselor. Yet Arizona ranks lowest in the country for school counselor to student ratio with over 900 students for each school counselor. Even at the American School Counselors Association (ASCA) recommended ratio of 1 school counselor for every 250 students, school counselor is a big job. 

Academic CounselingPath to Graduation

States establish minimum graduation requirements, local districts further define them and counselors make sure students fulfill them. 

Jenn Walker counsels approximately 270 students at Miami Unified School District. Although her job is to focus on Seniors, she says it is important to work with juniors and sophomores. Photo by LCGross
Jenn Walker counsels approximately 270 students at Miami Unified School District. Although her job is to focus on Seniors, she says it is important to work with juniors and sophomores. Photo by LCGross

“The first month of school is dominated by class scheduling,” says Jenn Walker, Miami Junior Senior High guidance counselor. “The process has been further complicated by covid, with students enrolling later and switching a lot between online, hybrid and in-class learning.” 

Jenn Walker began work at Miami Jr Sr High in January 2018 through the AmeriCorps VISTA program. It was a six-month position and her role was “to help Seniors get their plan in place before they went into the world.” 

She worked primarily with seniors on scholarship applications. Rewards came through the students’ success. News of a massive scholarship. An important interview. The result of a collaborative effort. 

“I got it!” Jenn describes the thrill of the call, or the email, “that feels pretty good.”

Before the six-month position was up, she realized that she “kind of jived” with the school and its administration and liked the work. 

“The work I’m doing is valuable,” says Jenn. 

Today she counsels the approximately 270 students in grades 9-12. A Guidance Counselor, she distinguishes, has training in academic counseling and college prep, but not the master degree and social-emotional training required of a School Counselor. The job requires her to do “everything she can” to help students graduate. 

Jenn, in her office at Miami High School where she meets with students one-on-one, Both on zoom and in person. Photo by LCGross
Jenn, in her office at Miami High School where she meets with students one-on-one, both on zoom and in person. Photo by LCGross

 

“Starting as a Senior is way too late,” says Jenn. “I wasn’t told to start working with sophomores and juniors, but…”

Jenn recently reached out to all students who were failing classes and was overwhelmed with responses. Lost motivation. No inspiration. Dislike or lack of comprehension for virtual learning. The effects of covid on their family.

Despite the challenges that beset rural, low-income school districts, local high school graduation rates are close to or above the national average of 88% for the year 2019-2020. 

Overall graduation rates at GHS (nearly 90% in 2020) have increased in recent years. Aja DeZeuuw attributes this in part to the alternative programs they make available for students at risk of not graduating.  

“The difference is in the way they structure classes.,” says Aja. “Students typically work on one or two classes at a time.”   

At the same location, but considered a separate school, the Center for Accelerated Learning serves about 40 students and is open for tutoring 7:30 AM to 5 PM. Students are allowed to cross over and take classes from both campuses, which enables them access to CTE courses and CVIT programs. One teacher works with each student to build an individual graduation program.

“She’s a jack of all trades,” Aja says. “She helps them with everything.”  

College & Career Readiness

“The way the world is now, every job requires some sort of training,” says Aja DeZeeuw. “In Arizona, your earning potential is drastically decreased if you have only a high school diploma.” 

This year at GHS, college-level courses in Chemistry, Spanish, English, Math and Science. The district pays tuition for up to 6 college credits per semester. 

“I have high standards,” Aja says. “I don’t think college is for everyone, but I also don’t want to hold anyone back from that option.” 

Many local students participate in one of six CVIT programs; some start as early as their sophomore year and some students graduate with multiple certifications. Popular programs include Nursing (CNA), Medical Assistant (MA) and Welding.  

Arizona ranks lowest in the country for school counselor to student ratio. At GHS, Aja DeZeeuw is responsible for more than double the recommended ratio of 1 counselor for every 250 students. Photo by Patti Daley
Pre-covid it was easy for students to drop into her office. Photo by LCGross.

“They may not stay in that field,” Aja says, “It gives them a skill to take with them.”   

GHS also offers 7 Career & Technical Education programs, including hospitality, photography and drones. This term they are piloting a 12-week elective course for automotive due to popular request. Another new elective is Criminal Justice. 

“The only limit to new programs is the teachers that can be attracted and retained,” says Aja “True for most rural areas.”

No matter what students choose, there are forms to fill out and tests to take. Kimberly Dyches, an Americorp member with training in college and career readiness is helping with applications at GHS. American College Testing (ACT) is required for many scholarships and considered a good benchmark for success in college courses. Test prep is a priority.

“It’s a gateway,” she says,” helping them excel at that test opens doors, builds confidence.”

Social-Emotional Counseling

“Kids can’t learn if they have social-emotional issues that are unresolved,” says Aja DeZeeuw.

The social-emotional needs of high school students, always complex, have amplified in the last year. Grief counseling has been paramount. Most students are struggling with motivation.

“It’s difficult for students to care about their GPA when they don’t know what’s going to happen to their family,” says Aja DeZeeuw. 

Aja has a master degree in School Counseling from Capella University with training in the mental health realm, but most of her time is consumed on the academic side of counseling  

“Right now, it’s purely intervention,” she says. “With time, I could do more prevention activities — workshops and group counseling to help students build self esteem and self advocacy.”  

In addition to counseling duties at GHS, Aja co-teaches a senior seminar class to educate students on financial literacy, college and career choice criteria, and interview skills. The course concludes with a focus on mental health. Stress reduction. Anxiety and depression.  When to get help. 

“In a perfect world, I would have more counselors,” says Aja. “The seniors alone could use their own counselor.” 

At Miami Jr Sr High there is no certified school counselor, but that doesn’t keep mental health and social work issues from coming forth.

“You learn quickly what these students’ stories are… maybe it’s disclosed through the process of scheduling or applications,” says Jenn Walker. “It’s tough what some of these kids are going through.”

The school follows FERPA guidelines regarding privacy of the student and family. If a student has a problem, if they are endangered, teachers and counseling staff are required to tell Principal Glen Lineberry, and the School Resource Officer (SRO). Referrals are made to available resources. 

San Carlos High School employs both a credentialed school counselor and a full-time social worker. (See our feature on Misty Groseth, M.Ed: Forging One’s Path ) There is an onsite Care Center to provide for the emotional and physical needs of students, including beds and showers. Students, however, have not been on campus this year. 

 

Providing Needed Support

 “It takes every person that is available in their life to help them meet the challenges of high school and prepare them for their life after high school — whatever they choose,” says Connie Callaway, GEAR UP coordinator at GHS.

GEAR-UP (Gaining Early Awareness & Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), is a federally funded grant program administered through college partnerships designed to increase the number of low-income students who enter and succeed in college. Six-year grants fund a cohort from 7th grade through high school graduation. 

Tim Wiley, was part of the 2012 Gear-up class at Globe High School. Seen here with classmates, GMT featured his story in August 2016. Courtesy Photo.
Tim Wiley, was part of the 2012 Gear-up class at Globe High School. Seen here with classmates, GMT featured his story in August 2016. Courtesy Photo.

Each cohort has different needs — tutoring. credit recovery, enrichment.  Test prep. Access to access to Nettutor, a pricey online tutoring service. College scholarships to low-income students.

At GHS, upperclassmen welcome incoming freshmen and mentor them throughout the school year as part of the program.

“Those who feel more connected to their school and other students do better academically,” says Aja DeZeuuw, “camaraderie between upper and lower class men is a positive.”

Though statistical effectiveness data is lacking (less than 1% of the funds can be used for program assessment), Connie cites personal success stories — graduates that come back and volunteer, and those that go on to receive degrees and full employment. In 2020, she says, the GHS team graduated 127 kids during a pandemic. Collectively the class received $3.8 million in scholarships.

“You want to know what GEAR UP does?” says Connie. “That’s what it does.”

 

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