Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Reach Higher: Bridging the gaps through cultural competency

By Bethany Bray November 4, 2016

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. was preaching to the choir at last week’s Reach Higher Convening when he said school counselors could make a powerful and long-term impact on the lives of students.

“I am here because of the difference educators made for me. I know you make that difference. … You [school counselors] are everyday heroes in our schools,” said King, whose mother was a school counselor.

The Reach Higher Convening, a gathering of close to 200 school counselors, administrators and other education professionals from around the U.S., was held Oct. 28-30 at American University in Washington, D.C. The American Counseling Association was a co-sponsor of the event, the

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. speaks at the Reach Higher Convening on Oct. 28. Photo by Bethany Bray/Counseling Today

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. speaks at the Reach Higher Convening on Oct. 28. Photo by Bethany Bray/Counseling Today

fifth gathering held as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher initiative focused on the bridge between K-12 education and college and career readiness.

While at the convening, King announced that the U.S. Department of Education would expand its School Ambassador Fellows program to include school counselors (starting with the 2017-18 school year). Previously, the program was open only to teachers and school principals. Educators in the ambassador program lend their perspective to discussions about federal programs and are positioned to inform nationwide policy.

The theme of this year’s convening was cultural competence. Workshops and sessions focused on addressing the equity gaps that exist for students from underserved backgrounds.

For example, King posed a question: When you walk into an advanced placement (AP) class in a public high school, does the class makeup reflect the school community as a whole? What about the robotics club or the in-school suspension room?

Only 18 percent of teachers are persons of color, which does not match the overall cultural makeup of America’s student body, King noted.

“We still have not delivered, as a society, on Brown [v. the Board of Education],” King said. “We want students to have role models that look like them. That’s important to how we knit our diverse society together.”

For educators, cultural competence includes knowing – and appreciating – the context in which a student lives, said King. For example, a student who serves as a translator for his or her family may be apprehensive about leaving home for college.

“They [families and students from underserved backgrounds] don’t have the same range of knowledge of what’s possible. … We can affect that through school,” King said.

A school counselor’s role as an advocate, particularly for students who are first-generation Americans, “can change a student’s life trajectory,” said King.

Vivian Lee, an American Counseling Association member and associate professor in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, spoke about how each person’s own cultural

ACA member Vivian Lee speaks at the Reach Higher Convening on Oct. 28. Photo by Bethany Bray/Counseling Today

ACA member Vivian Lee speaks at the Reach Higher Convening on Oct. 28. Photo by Bethany Bray/Counseling Today

competence is a lens through which he or she views data such as student achievement statistics.

“Cultural competence is a lifelong journey,” Lee said. “It’s a journey we are all on. It enables us to see that the road is more challenging for some. … We need to be able to see, hear and validate the lives of people in groups other than our own. … The time is now for us to begin these dialogues.”

Lee and another member of ACA, Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, dean of American University’s School of Education, were instrumental in organizing the Reach Higher Convening at AU. ACA President Catherine Roland also attending the convening.

“It doesn’t get any better than having the White House, the First Lady and the Department of Education recognize and support the integral role of counselors in helping students ‘reach higher,’” said Lynn Linde, senior director of ACA’s Center for Counseling Practice, Policy and Research. She has attended all five convening events.

“This convening focused on equity and access issues for all students and the counselor’s integral role in helping all students maximize their potential,” Linde said. “… [School counselors] see the potential in students who don’t always see it in themselves.”





(From Left to right) Jasmine McLeod, school counseling specialist at the U.S. Department of Defense; Laura Owen, researcher in residence at American University; John B. King Jr., U.S. Secretary of Education; Vivian Lee, associate professor at Johns Hopkins University; and Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, Dean of American University’s School of Education, at the Reach Higher Convening in Washington D.C. on Oct. 28. [Photo credit: Steven Owen]



Find out more about the Reach Higher initiative at


Press release from the U.S. Department of Education on the inclusion of school counselors in the ambassador program:


ACA President Catherine Roland will share some thoughts about the convening in her “From the president” column in the upcoming December issue of Counseling Today.


ACA’s Q+A with Secretary King from this summer:




Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at


Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at






Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *