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A Good Guidance Counselor Makes All the Difference

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Maria was the youngest of three children born to Colorado natives of Mexican descent. Her father was a decent, hardworking man, who ran his own flooring business. Her mother worked in a local hospital, where she was a respected clerk. Early in their young lives, Maria and her siblings were enveloped in a nurturing environment led by two hardworking parents. That all changed when Maria was five-years-old and her father moved out. After he left, life was completely different for the Ortega children. Maria's mom started drinking and she rarely saw her father. In high school Maria got into trouble, got involved in gang activity and was suspended on numerous occasions. While she was smart and possessed an innate potential to succeed, in the wake of all that she experienced while a young girl, she put up a protective shield and didn't apply herself. Eventually, a school counselor noticed Maria's potential and starting talking to her about college, a previously unheard of notion to Maria. There are many factors that go into being ready for college and each and every student has a different life experience, learning style, and financial situation. Thanks to the investment from handful of caring adults, including her knowledgeable, dedicated and compassionate guidance counselor, Maria finished college, works full time as a dental assistant and will graduate with a degree in biology. She plans on attending dental school and wants to do missionary work in poverty stricken communities.

Let's face it, the circumstances in many children's lives make it enormously difficult for them to stay on the path toward obtaining higher education. They often have chaotic family lives, see few positive role models and routinely attend schools where guidance counselors are slim to none.

A survey conducted in 2010 by Public Agenda on the effectiveness of high school guidance counselors showed that one in five students delayed going to college due to inadequate counseling. From filling out applications, to getting transcripts and recommendations, the whole process can be overwhelming. Our kids must be taught how to navigate all of the challenges associated with going on to college. Yet the counseling experience, vital for so many of our kids, is sorely lacking.

High school students look to guidance counselors for help in making smart choices, and counselors can assist them in finding the right fit where they will best achieve success. Yet and still, counselors must also deal with a host of real life issues, such as broken families, language barriers, low self-esteem and students who simply want to drop out of high school all together. And even though they typically encourage higher education, counselors recognize that not every student is on the trajectory to complete college, so they must also prepare these students for the future by showing them how to acquire the necessary skills and training to sustain a promising career.

In a previous blog post, College Readiness Is More Than Academics, I contend that "more often than not, the kids who attend college have supportive mentors in their lives that instill in them not only the importance of education, but also the necessary values like persistence, patience and how to navigate through the college admissions process." However, statistics from the American School Counselor's Association (ASCA), show that the average ratio of U.S. high school students per guidance counselor is 476 to 1 -- which equates to about 38 minutes on average that a guidance counselor spends per student. Not hardly enough time or attention to provide the guidance and direction our kids so desperately need. The ASCA also acknowledges that over-burdened school counselors have a "significantly decreased ability to work individually with students in navigating the complex financial aid and college admission process."

Folks, in many instances, a student's determining factor about their eventual ability to succeed or fail is reduced to one positive role model in his or her life. Counselors play a crucial role in letting students know that college is an attainable goal, help set realistic expectations for the college experience and share how to succeed once they get there. Often times they are the only mentor, reliable presence and opportunity to engage in a conversation about the future.

DC Prep, a charter school located in Washington, DC for example, recognizes that counselors play a crucial role in a student's future success. They are committed to ensuring that every child is prepared academically and socially for a successful future. DC Prep's counseling program meets the psychological, social and education needs of their students and helps them to have a fulfilling and productive school experience that adequately prepares them for high school and beyond. 100 percent of their graduates enroll in college prep high schools.

More often than not, young adults who fail to complete college come from families with lower incomes. When students succeed in college, their families, communities and future generations benefit in the process. Let's give all of our kids an equal opportunity to maximize their full potential. We must call for a renewed look at the effectiveness and the need to upgrade high school career counselors. And we can start by asking policymakers, school administrators and education reformers to take a hard look at the necessary role that good counselors play in student's lives.

For when it comes to facilitating students' transition from high school to college or work, the current system is seriously under-serving our kids. Guidance and career counselors inspire our young people to continue the cycle of learning and make important life choices that will positively impact their future. And many change the life trajectory for students like Maria.