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Call to Strengthen School Counseling With Training and Innovation

Cambridge, Mass.

School counselors would love to see their caseloads drastically reduced, but they know that that is not likely in the cards. So those gathered at Harvard University for a summit on college access instead focused on how counselors can better manage the hand they've been dealt.

In an effort to get more low-income students into and through college, first lady Michelle Obama has embraced the role of the school counselor,  called on innovations to support professionals in the field, and shared her personal story about being a first-generation college student.

The White House and the Harvard Graduate School of Education convened more than 130 leaders from professional associations, nonprofit community organizations, school districts, higher education, and foundations July 28 in Cambridge to address the issue. They talked about how to ramp up training, leverage technology, and rally together for administrative support to improve the quality and quantity of college advising.

"People want to do more," said Mandy Savitz-Romer, who was the lead organizer of the event at Harvard, where she is a professor and has researched the need for improved counselor preparation. "They feel there is an incredible opportunity and they are ready to engage, to do new things, to use data and to collaborate. I think that was really palpable—that excitement."  

Buoyed by the recent endorsement from the first lady and the January summit on college access at the White House, participants conveyed a sense of urgency to seize the moment.

Cheryl Holcomb McCoy, the vice provost of faculty affairs at the Johns Hopkins University school of education, heralded the day as historic and said it was "absolutely one of the most important days in school counseling. She told the audience that counselors need tools to help underserved students, information on new counseling strategies that use social media, and ways to engage students earlier. "It's important to offer support throughout the college prep process and provide continuity to guide students from elementary, to middle, to high school," said McCoy.

Several speakers referenced counselors being stretched (1 counselor for every 471 students on average, while 250:1 is recommended) and tasked with administrative work that takes them away from using their counseling expertise.  But rather than push for more funding or policy changes, the conference focused on creative ways counselors operate in the current environment.

Officials conveyed a sense of pragmatism about limited resources.

"We certainly want to try to do all we can without new money, while at the same time looking for opportunities to create," said Ted Mitchell, the U.S. under secretary of education, at the event, adding there might be ways teacher education regulations could be adapted to provide more preservice professional development training for counselors. "We have to confront, as eager as we all are to see the number and power of college counselors increase, that we are fighting in some states, including California, a decade's long disinvestment in counselors."

Savitz-Romer noted that rewriting a counselor's job description, putting counselors in more prominent positions in the school's organization chart, and adding college-access training in graduate school are all improvements that can position counselors as leaders and don't cost anything. "What counselors really want is to be able to do their jobs more effectively. It feels impossible right now," she said.

Organizers of the event noted that the administration's Reach Higher Initiative will continue to convene professionals around college access. San Diego State University has committed to hosting a follow-up meeting on counseling later this year. A separate event will take place to discuss remedial education, according to Eric Waldo, an adviser to Mrs. Obama, whom he referred to as the country's new "school counselor in chief."

Just as at the January summit, attendees at the Harvard event were asked to make commitments to improve college access and they will be asked to report on their progress at subsequent gatherings, said Waldo.

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