By Matthew Tungate
Betty Lawson, student support specialist at Bondurant Middle School and Western Hills High School (Franklin County), grew up poor in southeastern Kentucky with “an abusive alcoholic” father. When she was 16, her father fired a gun at her, and she was saved only because her mother wrestled him for the gun. The bullet just missed her.
“My eight siblings and I spent some nights sleeping in the woods, in barns and even on neighbors’ porches. I feared for my life daily,” she said. “We went hungry and didn’t have decent clothes to wear, so I have a deep understanding of what some of these students go through.”
When she was in the 3rd grade, Lawson’s teacher called her into the hall.
“I thought I was in trouble, because she was strict. She handed me a brown paper bag and asked me to open it. I pulled the contents out, and it was two of the most beautiful dresses I had ever seen,” Lawson said. “I had never really thought about it before, but I realized that maybe other people saw that I was poor. I wore the dresses until I couldn’t fit into them anymore.”
Over the years, Lawson had other teachers who mentored and guided her. She, in return, has shown the same kind of care and concern to the students with whom she works. “This is not just a job for me, but a passion because I was one of these kids growing up,” Lawson said.
Lawson used her childhood and school experiences to inform her work as a member of the Kentucky Department of Education committee that created the state’s new advising toolkit, Your Future Ahead. The toolkit is free to school districts.
The toolkit is designed to help middle and high schools develop and improve their mentoring and advising programs. It includes sections on building time during the school day for advising, Kentucky-specific lesson plans that trained mentors/advisers can use with students, and effectively using the Individual Learning Plan (ILP). The toolkit is divided into three development areas – personal/social, academic and career – and mirrors the American School Counselor Association’s standards. The toolkit also includes a section on best practices.
Advising toolkit allows all adults in school to be advisers
April Pieper, project lead and secondary interventionist for the Kentucky Department of Education, said Your Future Ahead is progressive because it follows the American School Counselors Association’s mentoring-advising model, allowing adults throughout a school – not just counselors – to mentor and advise students.
“What we’ve realized through talking with schools and districts, and talking to the Kentucky Counseling Association, is that in our middle schools and high schools, our guidance counselors are very, very busy individuals,” she said. “They are busy with schedules, and they are busy with assessments. It is very difficult for them to meet with students individually or even in small groups to discuss some of these very important topics.”
Scott High School (Kenton County) counselor Deborah Ison remembers the time she and other counselors were meeting with the principal about an upcoming assessment and a student appeared at the door in tears.
“It was clearly a choice between the assessment needs and the child’s needs,” she said. “Thankfully, since that time, my school has seen the wisdom of having a counselor dedicated to all assessment, freeing the other two counselors to shepherd their caseloads – as much as is humanly possible with 500 students per caseload.”
Most training for school counselors in the last 30 years has focused on mental health, said Ison, who also served on the committee that created the toolkit.
“Our society is not a healthy and safe place for many students, and school is sometimes the only constant and stability in their lives,” she said. “Increasingly, we are faced with meeting those social and emotional needs on top of everything else.”
Meeting the needs of every child is impossible for counselors, Lawson said. That is why the advising toolkit is groundbreaking – because other adults have an opportunity to advise along with counselors, she said.
“I am not a counselor nor do I hold any degree that qualifies me to counsel, but I do consult, advise and mentor students who are having academic or behavior issues,” Lawson said. “Sometimes students need someone to listen and just guide them through the problem-solving process. Some of our students have a difficult time at home, and they need to know someone cares and will be there for them.”
Pieper said teachers are in an excellent position to serve as mentors/advisers to students.
“As a classroom teacher, we know that our students have lots of needs,” she said. “I’ve sat there and looked at 35 kids and realized three of them are struggling with something that had absolutely nothing to do with my content that day. How do you reach those students? When do you work with those students?”
In high school, students often shut out their parents, Pieper said. But at school they have other adults who can help them – even if it’s not their teachers.
“Sometimes it works out best if that’s not the person doing their discipline referrals, or that’s not the person giving them an ‘F’ on their homework,” she said. “That conflict of interest is tough for students.”
Students’ problems often are easily rectified if an adult can get them to talk, Pieper said.
“First, you have to invest time and energy in that child before they’re going to tell you what the problem is,” she said. “That part is some of what we’re hoping to really do.”
Toolkit rooted in Senate Bill 1
The idea for the advising toolkit traces to the Unified Strategy for College and Career Readiness plan, one of several initiatives to develop out of 2009’s Senate Bill 1 (SB 1), Pieper said. Improved advising is one of the plan’s key strategies.
Advising is a vital tool to helping students reach college and career readiness, Pieper said. However, she said, using every adult in a building to advise/mentor students meets with two immediate objections: adults don’t have lesson plans, and they don’t know what to do or say to the students.
“So we took that excuse away,” Pieper said. “We built it for them.”
Thanks to the toolkit, every adult in a building can reach six or seven students, she said. Resources already exist to train community members on how to be mentors, too, she said.
Lawson said you never know who may help a child.
“For example, a custodian may notice a student upset or crying and alert a teacher, counselor or another staff member to inquire about the issue. A cafeteria worker may notice a student asking for more food at lunch, and alert us to the fact that the student may not be eating enough at home because of financial difficulty,” she said.
Advising shows up in another SB 1 requirement, Program Reviews, so schools are expected to use it “unless they have something wonderful they’re using,” Pieper said.
“But that’s the reason we created this – there really wasn’t a lot of ‘something wonderfuls’ out there,” she said.
Toolkit contains lessons
The lessons in the advising toolkit are flexible enough for adults in many roles to use, Pieper said.
Ideally, a school would have a time in its schedule for students to meet with their mentors/advisers, and ideally that mentor/adviser would use the curriculum in the toolkit, she said. But if a school isn’t going to do that, it could spread the lessons among teachers, Pieper said.
Ison said Scott High has a high school orientation class, called Eagle 101, during which teachers use the advising toolkit.
“If used correctly, they will be happy with that resource,” she said. “We also have a class called College 101, where the teachers are focusing on the ILP and will be using the toolkit. Sometimes people just have to begin using something, and word of mouth will do the rest. The benefit to students is obvious to me. Having a guideline means the student should get the same information regardless of teacher.”
Now in its sixth year, the ILP is a Web-enabled college- and career-planning tool that allows students in grades 6-12 to begin thinking about life after high school, according to Sharon Johnston, the ILP program consultant for KDE. The centerpiece of the ILP is the career matchmaker, which matches students’ interests with possible career choices, she said.
“The ILP is the consummate resource for guiding students,” Johnston said.
Ison took the ILP’s value even further.
“The ILP is the most valuable tool I have ever seen for students,” she said. “We have only scratched the surface of its power for kids.
“Our task is marketing, in my opinion. For students, it’s tantamount to having the cure for cancer, and not telling anyone about it. We are so underutilizing this valuable resource.”
Ison thinks the new advising toolkit does a good job of complementing the ILP, with which schools are already familiar.
“Helping students understand that their social and emotional proclivities might suit one career better than another has long been ignored, and the toolkit addresses that,” she said. “Students and their parents need to see, and can see, a seamless connection between assessments, high school course selections, the ILP, and future college and career plans. That is groundbreaking, in my opinion.”
Pieper said the toolkit is a “living” document, and is not finished. It likely will receive revisions as more ideas are generated. She encouraged teachers to offer suggestions on lessons that could be added and ways the toolkit can be improved.
“We certainly weren’t the end-all of experts; there are lots of experts across the state in every classroom,” Pieper said.
The payoff on improved advising is worth it, Lawson said.
“Don’t give up on the students, because investing time in kids is like planting a seed. Someone plants, someone else needs to add water, and someone adds some sunshine. Just like a flowering plant, a student will someday bloom with brilliant colors. It just takes time, patience and support,” she said. “We have to remember that the students are fighting a way of life they have been taught since birth, and changing attitudes and learned behaviors takes time. It’s to everyone’s advantage in the long run to keep trying.”
MORE INFO …
Sharon Johnston, firstname.lastname@example.org, (502) 564-2106, ext. 4159