When you boil it down, public school counselors and
community-based organizations focused on higher education have one
common goal: to get their students to college.
But public school counselors, especially those in schools with
underserved student populations, also have to juggle a lot of other
duties: managing class scheduling for entire grade levels or the whole
school, helping families navigate special education requirements like
individualized education plans, and attending to students’ often fragile
mental health and emotional needs.
College counseling can understandably get moved to the back burner on
a public school counselor’s crowded stove. That’s where community-based
organizations (CBOs) come in.
To establish a strong relationship and set students up for success,
public school counselors and CBO leaders suggest three things:
The most important part of the relationship between Chicago Public
Schools and Chicago Scholars, a CBO that serves “academically ambitious
first-generation students from under-resourced communities in Chicago,”
is regular communication, said Rachael Accavitti, vice president of
programs at Chicago Scholars.
Chicago Scholars hosts a yearly lunch for counselors to update them
on students’ success and plans for the next year. One of their team
members also meets regularly with someone from Chicago Public Schools’
Office of School Counseling and Postsecondary Advising for updates from
Recently, Chicago Scholars and Chicago Public Schools expanded those
lines of communication even further by signing a data-sharing agreement,
Accavitti said. That allows both sides to see a student’s progress in
Chicago Scholars’ program and empowers the counselors to give students a
nudge if they’re late on completing a portion of the program.
And that demonstrates the ultimate goal of this increased communication, Accavitti said: to support the students.
“I’ve seen, especially in the last year [during the COVID-19
pandemic], the way in which it is easier for a student in this virtual
space to not show up, to not be reached,” she said. “I think that
(having) more trusted people in their lives…reaching out to provide this
support, to create this net of resources to catch them, has been
When Jennifer Nuechterlein, college and career counselor at Hunterdon
Central Regional High School in Flemington, New Jersey, has meetings
with her students, they almost always include their family members.
She works in a rural/suburban school district about two hours from
New York City and said her students’ families are heavily involved in
their college decisions these days. Candice Mackey, college counselor at
Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES) in Los Angeles, sees
the same thing, despite working in a much more urban environment than
For Mackey, the CBOs that succeed in her community are those who
offer wraparound services to students and their families—and she thinks
that’s key regardless of where your school is based.
“You’re always going to have working parents in your community, and
they’re always going to need support through the weekends, in different
languages, and in different formats—virtual and in-person,” Mackey said.
Ruth Lopez is one example of how paying attention to a student’s
nuanced situation helps. Lopez graduated in June and heading to College
of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts this fall. In addition to
meeting with Mackey regularly, she also met with an adviser from College
Match, a community-based organization that helps “talented students
from low-income families get into and graduate from the nation’s top
colleges and universities.”
When you boil it down, public school counselors and community-based
organizations focused on higher education have one common goal: to get
their students to college.
Ruth is Latina and her parents’ only child. It’s hard for her family
to talk about money, she said, and her parents worried about her living
away from home. But Mackey and Ruth’s College Match adviser worked
together to answer all of the family’s questions—bringing in Spanish
translators to talk to Ruth’s parents, sitting with Ruth as she video
chatted with The College Board, and giving her personalized feedback on
Having both her counselor and her adviser in her corner greatly eased Ruth’s mind, she said.
“They can answer questions the other one can’t answer,” she said.
“That made it easier for me to ask them questions and not feel shy about
it, because they would discuss it and brainstorm together.”
Learning that nuance has also been key for Peggy Jenkins, the
founding director of Palouse Pathways, a community-based organization in
Moscow, Idaho, that provides information and resources on college and
career planning to students in the area. The schools Palouse Pathways
serves vary widely: Some are in logging or farming communities, while
others are in college towns. Learning what those counselors’ work
environments are actually like has been key, Jenkins said.
The other key: Offering to “take something off counselors’ plates,”
Jenkins said. When she and one of her board members met with principals
and counselors from the Moscow school district a few years ago, they
asked that question, and the counselors immediately asked for help with
preparing students for college admission tests.
For three to four years, Palouse Pathways was able to train and pay a
few local teachers and hold test prep classes in the evenings. This
year, a school district approached the organization and asked them to
write a grant for summer classes to help students recapture credits they
may have lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Working to help in a way the schools want and need is immensely beneficial for the counselor-CBO relationship, Jenkins said.
Counselors “are people who are mostly really overworked and stressed
out,” Jenkins said. “If they don’t respond to you, it’s not necessarily
because they don’t want you there. If you can get a working knowledge of
what life is like for them and what their responsibilities are, that
can make a big difference.”
Pressley Frevert is a freelance writer living in North Carolina.