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Counseling kids to college

September 06, 2006|Douglas McGray | DOUGLAS MCGRAY, a contributing writer to The Times' West magazine, is a fellow at the New America Foundation.

IN ALL THE TALK about education reform, school counselors seldom come up. Maybe that's because adults tend to do the talking.

A privately funded after-school program in Oakland called Kids First has spent the last couple of years coordinating youth-led research projects to figure out why kids in their city believe that dropout rates are so high and college admissions so rare. To the surprise of the group's adult organizers, the No. 1 issue that kids identified was bad or nonexistent counseling.

The Kids First students said they had trouble making sense of graduation requirements -- especially the transfer students, who can lose credits when they move to a new school. They said nobody talks to them about getting into college until their senior year, and by then, many have signed up for the wrong mix of classes, or missed the PSAT, or made other mistakes that they have no time to correct. They said few of their friends know about scholarships or financial aid. As a result, they wildly overestimate the cost of higher education and see college as a fantasy. Many look at that unpromising future and slack off, skip class or drop out.

The kids were onto something. This summer, a study by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC found similar results among Latino students in Los Angeles. Half the legal immigrant teenagers surveyed wrongly believed they were ineligible for financial aid. And few respondents could accurately describe the cost of a state college education or the grants and loans that are available. Meanwhile, millions of dollars worth of Cal Grants to help pay for college go unclaimed every year.

"If we funded counselors the way they do in private schools like Harvard-Westlake, they would play a very important role," says USC professor William Tierney. But California has the worst student-to-counselor ratio in the country: nearly 500 students per counselor in the state's public high schools. In many schools, students are lucky to see their guidance counselor once a year.

"You have to be persistent," says Marlisa Gonzalez, a 17-year-old senior at Oakland Tech and a member of Kids First. Often, counselors are booked up. "Sometimes you have to skip your classes to see them."

And guidance counselors, scarce as they are, seem plentiful compared to college counselors. Guidance counselors help students resolve personal problems and work toward graduation, but few schools expect them to talk to kids about what comes next. For that, students have to see a college specialist, often just one adult -- if that -- for the entire student body.

The high schoolers in Kids First wanted to help. So they lobbied three Oakland principals to consider a new peer-counseling program; teens, they figured, could coach other teens in graduation and college requirements, and maybe even exert a little peer pressure. One high school, Oakland Tech, agreed to begin training peer counselors this fall.

Teen counselors are no substitute for adult professionals. But older students have experience to share. "I didn't think my freshman year counted," Marlisa recalls. Looking back, she thinks a peer counselor would have pushed her, the same way she would push a new freshman: "Cs are not going to cut it. You need to step up your game."

In the Kids First survey of 1,000 of their classmates, 86% said they would look to a peer counselor to help them get back on track academically, graduate or get to college. And more than half of the students were interested in becoming counselors themselves. The state Assembly recently announced funding to hire thousands of new counselors, which promises to lift California's student-counselor ratio from a national embarrassment to merely below average -- about 300 kids per counselor. These counselors, however, will focus exclusively on students at risk of dropping out or failing the state's exit exam. Much more counseling for all could help narrow the knowledge gap between communities where most kids go to college and those where just graduating high school means beating the odds.

Many high school teachers fill in for missing counselors; more could follow their example. USC's Tierney is encouraging professors to volunteer as mentors for area kids who, with a nudge, might get to college, and he believes that California universities, as institutions, should do a lot more to help high school students continue their education. In addition to peer counselors, the teens in Kids First have proposed a ninth-grade class that would teach all incoming students how to graduate and get to college and a simplified transcript that would help students track their own progress.

Communities must find new resources to help students understand and navigate their education. Allowing the education system to remain opaque to kids is a really dumb way to fail them.

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