Graduating high school is a defining moment of a young adult’s life, but Miami High School provides students the tools they need to pursue their dreams of collegiate achievement, military service or traditional career paths.
While administrators attempt to instill the importance of post-high school planning throughout a students’ time at the school, those efforts really come into focus for seniors preparing to go out into the world as adults.
“It’s an interesting time for seniors if they haven’t been serious about their plans,” says MHS Principal Glen Lineberry. “We’ve already had kids sign their military papers, we’ve already had kids accept offers at colleges and that sort of thing, but if they haven’t been serious, it’s now get serious time.”
Getting serious requires a lot of planning, whether it be filling out forms to ensure financial assistance for schooling or multiple job applications. Many students must also wrestle with the idea of leaving home for population centers like Phoenix, Tucson or cities in another state.
In order to help students find direction within themselves, MHS has hired its first certified guidance counselor in nearly a decade.
Thatcher native Colton Cook is almost through his first year in that position, bringing wide-ranging experiences from his own life to his job as counselor.
After completing a two-year mission with the Church of the Latter-day Saints, Cook worked his way through school, spending the past five years in the construction industry as he earned his master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. He says his father encouraged him to pursue a psychology degree because of his abilities to interact so well with a variety of friends when he was younger.
Cook’s approach has not been to push students in any particular direction, but to ensure they develop the skills needed to be successful no matter what they choose to do after high school.
“Our main goal is to make sure they find something they’re genuinely interested in and to be sure they’ve done at least a little bit of research that will help guide them,” Cook says. “And that they have the social and personal skills and the work ethic to be able to go in whatever direction that is.”
He says that he has been impressed with the response from MHS students, particularly since he is not being “annoying about college,” but encouraging them to be successful in whatever they are excited about. That dynamic can lead them to such external programs as the Cobre Valley Institute of Technology (CVIT) to earn two-year certificates in various fields, dual enrollment classes to earn college credits as they complete high school courses, or career and technical education (CTE) taught by qualified teachers at the school.
What it really comes down to for Cook in his role as a counselor is building trusting relationships — some that will last for years — not only with the students, but with parents as well.
“You get to know the students pretty well, because you’re advising them on what you think their career path might look like,” Cook says. “Having more information about the students lends itself to creating more one-on-one relationships with every student, because you’re really trying to discern what they want to do with their lives.”
Cook also encourages his student charges to explore career paths they hadn’t thought of that might be somehow connected to their post-high school dreams.
“I have a board in my office titled ‘Have you ever heard of this job?’ listing a ton of jobs that people never hear about,” he says. “Even two-thirds of the way through my master’s, I started learning about different jobs I could do within my skill set and my education, so I have a goal to try to educate kids as to a whole lot of oddball jobs they never heard of.”
While Cook helps students navigate possibilities, MHS also offers students help with the technical aspect of continued education.
AmeriCorps staffer Blayze Vanta guides students through the often complex path to higher education, from sharing her own personal experiences to walking them through the process of writing an essay for their college applications.
Vanta is a 2020 graduate of Globe High School who is a self-described overachiever in her third year at Arizona State University. She has a medical assistant certificate through CVIT and hopes to go to medical school once she graduates ASU. Her recent experiences in high school and college — experiences interrupted by the COVID pandemic — give her an advantage working with students.
“I’m so close in age and my experiences are more recent,” Vanta says. “When they come to me they can ask me any questions they have about college, whether it be questions about the FAFSA, questions about scholarships they might have or questions about how to prepare their essays for the scholarships.”
The free application for student aid (FAFSA) form is required for students heading to college or trade school, as the government form can potentially open the door to thousands of dollars worth of help to finance higher education.
As a high achiever, Vanta herself has had her ups and downs and nearly lost her full-ride scholarship as she learned how college works. But she regained her focus by seeking help and getting over her fear of asking questions.
She thinks it is important for students to realize they may change their minds along the way, but they need to be able to adjust quickly. The most important thing she can teach her students, though, is the reality that they are not alone on their life journey no matter how isolated they feel.
“The truth is, none of us are alone,” Vanta says. “What these kids need to understand is you have so many people willing to help and there’s no such thing as a stupid question: It might seem stupid to them, but honestly, they’re probably not the only one who’s had that question.”
While Vanta and Cook are on board to counsel students, MHS has developed external relationships to broaden opportunities for his soon-to-be former students.
Nonprofit organizations such as the Helios Foundation and the Saddlebrooke community on the outskirts of Tucson provide resources and scholarships. There are also local opportunities for schooling such as Eastern Arizona College and CVIT as well as a wide range of vocational programs and apprenticeships in the Valley and Tucson area.
It is a dizzying array of opportunities to juggle, even for adults, but Lineberry says his students are up for the challenge.
“Most of our kids are going to do multiple things,” he says. “Maybe they’re seeking full-time employment, maybe they’re seeking part time employment while they go to school, maybe they’re seeking part-time employment while they seek other employment.”
He adds that a certain amount of failure can be expected, but it is important for his students to learn that they need to pick themselves up, dust off and continue to work towards their goals no matter what path they choose or what gets in the way.
“This isn’t beanball that these kids are playing: This is difficult and complicated and scary and they have this feeling that they’re going to fail,” Lineberry concluded. “They are going to fail to some degree some number of times until they figure their way forward. We all forget that we did that.”
Journalist, writer and editor who has worked for community newspapers for more than 15 years. After four years at Davis-Monthan AFB and a few years living in Tucson, moved to California to find his fortune. He is happy to be back in Arizona, in the mountains he loves.