“Michael Taurus” is a C student who, as a ninth-grader, gave very little thought to his options after high school. If pressed, he probably would have mentioned going to community college or getting a job. Michael’s parents immigrated to the United States shortly after he was born and did not have the opportunity to continue their education beyond elementary school. Michael’s father struggled with job security, working odd construction jobs whenever they were available, while Michael’s mother worked the graveyard shift, cleaning hotel rooms to help support their family of six. Michael, the eldest of four children, spent most of his time after school taking care of his younger siblings in his parents’ absence.
According to a 2012 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, gaps across almost all measures of achievement and persistence in education are greatest for children living with poverty, children who are English language learners and children from ethnic minority groups most represented in low-income urban communities. Urban youth often have difficulty envisioning and investing in their futures fully due to other circumstances that require more immediate attention. For example, students worried that their families will be evicted from their homes may have difficulty focusing their attention on applying to colleges or preparing for employment.
The current state of the education system and the challenges that urban youth face affect the way that all counselors, not just college and school counselors, work with individuals, schools and communities. In short, systems-level solutions and partnerships are needed. This article explores issues confronting urban youth and describes one example of an equity-based partnership designed to promote a “college-going culture” in underresourced urban high schools. This effort is cultivated through the development and maintenance of community, school and higher education partnerships.
Consistent with scholarly definitions of urban youth, we are referring to young people, mostly ethnic minority, who reside in densely populated, lower socioeconomic, inner-city neighborhoods. A combination of internal and external challenges affect the ability of urban youth to succeed academically and become self-sufficient adults. Common environmental challenges include lack of adequate resources, limited access to social services and communities stricken by the influence of drugs and alcohol, violence and poverty.
The transition to college requires more than just academic preparation. Urban youth face motivational barriers and bleak expectations of their potential for college due to a lack of positive or knowledgeable role models who demonstrate academic success. In addition, many community members in urban neighborhoods struggle financially to support their families. Children are often expected to assume greater responsibility within the household or work outside the home to help support the family. Managing these obligations often interferes with students’ ability to perform well academically. Furthermore, their families’ lack of monetary resources and limited knowledge of financial aid can influence urban students’ attitudes toward higher education because the importance of earning money to help support their families is more urgent than spending money to go to school. Given the immediate financial needs for survival, the long-term investment of school is costly, both in terms of the funds needed to attend school and the delayed earning of wages. These circumstances lead many urban youth to become disengaged academically and less likely to pursue higher education.
Nevertheless, many urban families do their best to support their children’s educational efforts despite the challenges to financial stability and their limited knowledge of preparing for and navigating the transition to college. Making comprehensive support systems available to these families early in the high school experience can help address these difficulties and encourage urban youth to proceed in a positive direction.
Formal structures such as schools are expected to provide knowledge and skills for successful adulthood transition, either through higher education or employment. But in school systems with inadequate resources and overwhelmed staff, the school’s potential to have a direct impact on its students’ successful transition to college is disrupted. This is further intensified when schools lack a strong college-going culture.
Many urban high schools face significant behavioral and social challenges, such as community violence, conflict within the school and the influence of crime and gangs on the school community. These factors frequently require school administrators, counselors and teachers to focus on discipline and safety issues. Consequently, more effort is placed on addressing delinquent behavior than on promoting student achievement. Inadequate resources also hinder a school’s ability to expose students to higher education settings through field trips to college campuses and other activities. Because the influences and needs of students are so complex, a comprehensive partnership approach is indispensable.
A study of partnerships
System-level solutions are required to address the complex challenges faced by urban communities. For example, one of the major ongoing issues in underresourced urban schools is inadequate staffing due to tumultuous public funding issues. Frequent turnover among administrators, teachers and counselors inhibits the systematic ways schools can prepare students for postsecondary institutions. Changes in leadership create inconsistencies within the many structures of the school.
Partnerships that involve organizations committed to maintaining an ongoing and visible presence at the school can help establish and maintain stable relationships with students despite fluctuations in public funding. Sustained relationships with the community also contribute to greater cultural understanding of the students and their families. Counselors who develop and maintain their multicultural competence and advocacy competence as well as their skills in facilitating group systems are a tremendous resource, both within the school and the community.
A fundamental condition of creating a college-going culture and fostering successful transition to adulthood involves getting students to see themselves as having the potential to attend college or secure employment successfully. Counselors, school staff, agency staff and community members can work together so that students become aware early on of college and career counseling interventions. Students can then continue to connect with staff throughout various events and milestones in the process. Each of these partners contributes to greater understanding of the challenges faced by urban youth, the cultural values and styles of communication they revere and the strengths these students and their families present. Agency and school staff members who are bilingual and culturally competent are especially important in this environment to ensure that communication with families is clear and welcoming. Each partner also contributes to a more seamless functioning of a system that expects the best from students and conveys a belief in their success.
Developing initial and ongoing partnerships
This article focuses on the partnership between Seven Tepees Youth Program and John O’Connell High School (JOCHS) in San Francisco. The College and Career Centers of the Seven Tepees Youth Program are equity-based programs launched in 2007 to promote a college-going culture in two urban high schools through the development and maintenance of community, school and higher education partnerships.
The parent organization, Seven Tepees, was established in 1995 as a nonprofit organization in San Francisco’s Mission District. (The name Seven Tepees was given by one of the organization’s founders, Native American healer Hully Fetiçó. The name represents the diversity of the seven continents and the Native American tradition of connection to nature and care of the land. Although the program does not primarily serve Native American students, the richness of the world’s cultures is an integral part of all program components.) The organization works with urban youth to foster the skills needed to make lifelong positive choices and to create their own opportunities for success.
The primary mission of the College and Career Centers is to increase the number of students who enroll in college from the partner high schools and to work with these students to cultivate the skills necessary to transition to successful adulthood. The program serves all students regardless of GPA. The needs of the partner schools and communities, along with the alarming state of education, led Seven Tepees to recognize that systems-level solutions and partnerships were necessary for student success.
JOCHS, also located in the Mission District, was identified as an underperforming school by the state of California and mandated to undergo transformation. To provide some context, according to the San Francisco Unified School District School Accountability Report Card (2012), of the 471 students at JOCHS in 2011-2012, 58.2 percent identified as Latino, 15.9 percent as African American, 11.7 percent as Asian or Asian American, 7.4 percent as Filipino, 3.6 as white, 0.8 percent as American Indian or Alaska Native and 0.8 percent as multiracial. Moreover, 76.6 percent of the student population was identified as socioeconomically disadvantaged, 49 percent of the students were English language learners and 17.4 percent were identified as having disabilities. In addition, the continuity of school staff at JOCHS has been greatly challenged during the past decade, with 25 deans and administrators coming and going during that time.
From the time students enter JOCHS, they are exposed to the College and Career Center because of its central location on the high school campus. Student assistants work in the center, further contributing to its atmosphere as a hub of excitement and activity. These students also increase awareness of the center and of college as a real option through their existing social networks within the school. In this way, students begin to feel as though they belong in this space.
Exposure to the College and Career Center is enhanced with outreach to students early in their high school years. Then, during the middle of the 11th-grade year, a staff member from the center initiates the first formal individual meeting to discuss each student’s postsecondary goals. For some students, these goals may reflect a desire to enter the workforce rather than pursue postsecondary education. Regardless, the College and Career Center staff determines eligibility for college admissions for all students and facilitates a discussion of goals with each individual student. Prior to these meetings, some students favor employment over postsecondary plans due solely to the assumption that they would not be accepted to attend college or would be unable to pay for college. When provided with concrete information regarding possible resources, they are better able to examine their options fully and share information with their families to begin making decisions.
To meet with students individually, school partnerships and systems work cooperatively. For example, partnerships must be established with the teaching staff to create and implement procedures for supporting college-going culture goals, including releasing students from class for their individual appointments with the College and Career Center. An atmosphere of teamwork and trust is required so that school staff will approach this as a collaborative effort and treat it with the same importance as their curriculum. The College and Career Center must convey the connection between establishing a college-going culture and the need to meet with students individually. College and Career Center staff must also be strategic in seeking noninstructional times to meet with students — for example, during homeroom, lunchtime, free periods and after school — to keep disruptions to their academic courses to a minimum. If disrupting class time is unavoidable, the next task becomes determining which teachers are amenable to dismissing students from class. This process can be a challenge unless school personnel feel the goal is mutual. It is essential to have open and regular conversations with all partners regarding their perspectives on the value of transition goals, inclusive of vocational training as well as college.
The extent to which school counselors are directly involved in career and college counseling varies by district and state. This is often related to resources as well as policymakers’ visions of the role of school counselors. In urban schools, the ratio of counselors to students is often so low that counselors are stretched thin just handling safety and crisis concerns, basic course scheduling responsibilities and other administrative duties. But even in districts or schools where school counselors are unable to be directly involved in college readiness activities, they can still contribute to the process. School counselors may have existing relationships with students and families, knowledge of student histories, insights for working with students with specific needs or simply access to student records such as class schedules and academic transcripts. On a very basic level, school counselors can adjust student schedules to reflect the courses needed for graduation and college eligibility. Mutual sharing of information is essential as students are encouraged to set and reach milestones.
Other major partners within schools include school wellness centers and afterschool programs. In urban schools, these programs are often provided by community-based organizations (CBOs). Each of these partners expands the net of support for urban youth through mental health counseling, nutrition education, connection to social services, tutoring services, enrichment courses and credit recovery options. Students who receive such services may have a large network of therapists, tutors, mentors, case managers and social workers working collectively to ensure students’ overall well-being.
Developing and, most importantly, maintaining these partnerships with other departments and CBOs within the school becomes integral to helping students transition successfully into adulthood. For example, the Wellness Center and the College and Career Center at JOCHS often collaborate to provide workshops that address concerns such as anxiety or conflicts in the family about moving away for college. Additionally, a partnership with the school’s After School Program allows College and Career Center staff to work with tutors to ensure that students are on track for graduation and completing courses for college admissions. Other CBOs that may offer support and resources for urban youth include organizations that work with youth in foster care, provide employment opportunities or present scholarship opportunities.
Families are also contributing partners to student success and transition to adulthood. This can range from full support to minimal engagement, such as providing income information for financial aid applications. Students such as Michael often come from collectivistic families in which parents have a large influence — and in some cases, the ultimate voice — in students’ postsecondary decisions. Families who do not favor students’ goals, or fear the educational process, may take an adversarial stance.
In urban schools, many parents have limited engagement with the school and educational process for a wide range of other reasons, such as a schedule that involves working two or more jobs, caring for family members or many other obligations. In addition, parents who have limited experience or past negative experiences with educational institutions may hesitate to engage with the school. Schoolwide events that aim to connect with families and address their needs can provide education and support in areas such as financial planning to help overcome informational and pragmatic barriers. In addition to holding events, the College and Career Center welcomes parents to meet individually with staff regarding concerns about college. The center also provides bilingual staff for many families with limited English fluency.
Following Michael: The college and career readiness process
Throughout his time in high school, Michael had both indirect and direct exposure to a College and Career Center in his high school. When he entered ninth grade, he and his cohort were exposed to schoolwide events, classroom presentations and a centrally located drop-in center devoted to cultivating a college-going culture. During the 10th grade, he was introduced to the PSAT and participated in field trips to colleges and universities. In 11th grade, Michael and all of his classmates met individually with a College and Career Center staff member to talk about post-high school plans and what to expect during senior year.
During this intake meeting, the discussion focused on determining what plans, if any, Michael had beyond high school and gauging his understanding of postsecondary education. Program staff evaluated Michael’s transcripts with him to determine college admissions eligibility and to create an educational plan for the remainder of high school. The plan outlined which courses to take, when he should take the SAT/ACT, deadlines for college applications, appropriate financial aid and scholarships, as well as suggested extracurricular activities and other college preparatory activities. Michael learned that he was eligible for admission to a state university if he made up a few failed courses.
Thrilled with the news, he began to plan for summer school to make up his failed courses, studied for the SAT, researched colleges and universities, investigated scholarships and worked toward maintaining good grades. He participated in “college week” workshops that were facilitated by Seven Tepees staff and university and college partners. The workshops focused on topics such as financial aid and scholarships, admissions, career decision-making and other relevant topics.
At the start of his senior year, Michael was eager to start applying for college, and he had established a bond with the College and Career Center staff. With guidance and assistance, he applied to eight universities and also began looking for and applying for scholarships. Michael was on track to enter a four-year university and was excited to become the first member of his family to graduate high school.
Michael returned after winter break of his senior year noticeably uninspired and disconnected from his studies. He came to school less frequently, and his grades began to drop. The school counselor initiated a meeting that included his teachers and personnel from key departments with which Michael worked closely, such as the College and Career Center, the School Counseling Department, the Wellness Center and the After School Program. During the meeting, Michael’s teachers expressed their concerns with his grades. They shared information Michael had provided regarding his familial obligations as the eldest child and his need to care for younger siblings while his parents worked long hours. Moreover, considering his family’s low income, the teachers speculated that Michael might be experiencing anxiety about the cost of college. The school staff developed a shared understanding of the issues and then invited Michael’s family to collaborate.
Parents of urban youth may be unable to participate fully in this type of process because it would mean missing work and losing necessary income. However, when a student is in jeopardy of not graduating or if the student is losing a potential opportunity to enter college, the parents or guardians usually make the sacrifices necessary to participate to the extent they are able. Sensitivity and cultural competence is critical in these types of discussions. Sometimes, they may require the additional involvement of staff members who can provide a cultural perspective and offer linguistically appropriate communication relevant to the student.
In Michael’s case, everyone on the school team worked together to create a culturally congruent proposal to address the many challenges he faced. Michael’s parents attended a meeting to discuss his potential and the current difficulties given the family’s financial burdens and child care challenges. After the counselor and support staff provided information regarding community resources for the family, Michael’s family was able to devise an alternative plan for child care that would allow Michael to spend more time with tutors after school. His teachers and the After School Program were able to offer tutoring services to help Michael raise his grades, while the Wellness Center provided counseling around the anxiety he was feeling. The College and Career Center worked with Michael to reevaluate and adjust his initial educational plan to get him back on track for college acceptance. The center’s staff also helped him search for scholarships and apply for federal and state financial aid, and discussed more affordable college options with him, including local universities that would allow Michael to live at home, thus reducing housing costs. Michael and his family continued to face challenges, but with guidance and assistance from partners, along with engagement from the family, he was able to move forward and was accepted to several local state universities.
With many students, the vigilance and support of the team can help identify and address challenges that might arise in the transition process before they become prohibitive. For other students, challenges will require a revision of the plan. With the help of counselors and a College and Career Center that is invested in each individual student’s story, a new plan can continue to help these youth move forward toward adulthood in a positive way.
Recommendations for counselors
Counselors are important contributors to the multifaceted approach needed to address students’ transition to adulthood. School counselors, college counselors, wellness counselors, mental health counselors, career counselors and rehabilitation counselors all offer important expertise and perspectives in this area.
The importance of multicultural and advocacy competence cannot be overstated, and it is an ethical imperative for counselors to gain and maintain their knowledge, self-awareness and skills toward these competencies. The Multicultural Competencies and the Advocacy Competencies adopted by the American Counseling Association provide valuable guidance. For example, the Advocacy Competencies describe the ways that counselors can advocate on individual, organizational and policy levels and provide recommendations for the types of skills and knowledge that facilitate the role of advocate at these levels. In addition to providing direct service, counselors can play a pivotal role as a touchstone for the observations of teachers and other staff members, organizing information and facilitating collaboration when interventions are needed in the system.
Michael’s situation offers just one example of the barriers that can prevent forward movement toward successful adulthood transition for urban youth. Partnerships between collaborators become a critical component in helping students such as Michael. Yet the functionality of the model and its results will vary because each individual, family, school and community presents different needs and concerns. The central contributor to success is the development and maintenance of partnerships and collaboration. Everyone is an important player with expertise to share and the ability to foster success.
Knowledge Share articles are adapted from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Amie Tat is the college success coordinator for the Seven Tepees Youth Program and a second-year graduate student in college counseling in the Department of Counseling at San Francisco State University.
Rebecca L. Toporek is an associate professor and coordinator of the career counseling and college counseling specializations in the San Francisco State University Department of Counseling. She served on the task force that developed the ACA Advocacy Competencies. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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