According to the U.S. Department of Education, African American and Latino students drop out of school more frequently and have lower high school graduation rates than do their White non-Latino counterparts. There are many reasons for this achievement gap, including failing and under-resourced schools, students residing in unsafe and/or poor neighborhoods, acculturation challenges, limited English language acquisition, racism, and familial and socioeconomic barriers. For example, African American and Latino students are more likely to attend schools that offer few opportunities to take Advanced Placement courses, and these students are less likely to take SAT preparation courses. According to the Department of Education, only approximately 13 percent of African American and Latino students took the SAT in 2008. Given that 90 percent of four-year colleges and universities use the SAT as an important criterion in selecting first-year incoming students, African American and Latino students are at a significant disadvantage compared with their White peers.
College affordability is another issue that restricts African American and Latino students’ access to higher education. Immigrant students who are undocumented cannot apply for federal financial aid, although the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that went into effect in August 2012 has resulted in some states permitting DACA recipients to pay in-state tuition instead of international rates of tuition.
English language learners continue to be the fastest-growing population within U.S. schools. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the projected Hispanic school-age population (ages 5-19) is estimated to reach more than 20.1 million by 2025, up from 13.8 million in 2010. The projected African American school-age population is expected to reach 9.9 million by 2025, up from 9.4 million in 2010. Given the growing Latino and African American populations and the widening achievement gap, educators must engage in a unified effort for change. School counselors, given their unique position of serving as a counselor, consultant and advocate to and on behalf of students, can take a leadership role in this effort.
Federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation was enacted in 2002 with the goal of every child being “proficient” by June 2014; however, significant gaps in academic achievement persist. The economic benefits of completing high school and attaining a higher education, both for individuals and for society as a whole, are important and cannot be ignored. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2012 median average weekly earnings for individuals 25 and older with no high school diploma were $471. A high school diploma increased median average weekly earnings to $652, while the median weekly earnings for individuals holding a bachelor’s degree were $1,066.
Unemployment rates follow a similar path. The 2012 unemployment rate for individuals 25 and older who did not possess a high school diploma was 12.4 percent; for individuals with a bachelor’s degree, the unemployment rate was 4.5 percent. In addition, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, individuals without any college education were more likely to lose their job during the economic recession, and economic recovery has been significantly weaker for individuals without a college education. Consequently, closing the achievement gap and promoting college access are social justice issues that require all educators and policymakers to take immediate action.
Understanding the school counselor’s role
In thinking about how to best promote academic success among African American and Latino students, it is important to understand the school counselor’s role and areas of possible intervention. The National Standards for School Counseling Programs published by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), a division of the American Counseling Association, was the first national initiative to define the role of the school counselor in ensuring equal student access to comprehensive school counseling programs. The national standards also served as the impetus to develop the ASCA National Model, which helped further clarify the role of the school counselor concerning program foundation, service delivery, management and accountability.
A principal aspect of service delivery includes working with parents and families and providing consultation to school personnel. School counselors are also held accountable for demonstrating that their interventions contribute to academic achievement among all students, with an emphasis on advocating for social justice through closing the achievement gap for low-income and minority students. Moreover, in 2002, the Education Trust implemented the National School Counselor Training Initiative. This set a clear role for the school counselor as a leader within the school community charged with collaborating with all school community members, including students, teachers, administrators, parents, families and community members, in promoting academic achievement.
The National Office for School Counselor Advocacy (NOSCA), through the College Board, also defines the role of the school counselor as a leader in advocating for student achievement and implementing schoolwide reform. This includes:
1) Achieving academic success and working with students and other stakeholders to develop future career plans
2) Supporting social justice for all students
3) Encouraging schoolwide change to benefit students
4) Developing a school environment that encourages academic achievement
5) Developing outcomes-based interventions with quantifiable objectives to measure academic success
6) Celebrating student differences and valuing uniqueness
7) Maintaining continuing education with a focus on multicultural advancement
The leadership and advocacy roles that school counselors are now charged with in terms of implementing comprehensive school counseling programs put these counselors at the forefront in promoting academic achievement and college readiness among African American and Latino students.
College and career planning
College and career planning are major areas of focus for middle school and high school counselors. School counselors, in collaboration with teachers, can set high expectations for all students and prepare them for rigorous course work. School counselors can also work with administrators to implement an open policy regarding taking Advanced Placement courses. They should provide support to all students who have an interest in taking advanced courses, being careful not to discourage access based on perceived limitations, even if available spots are limited.
In addition, failure should not be accepted. School counselors can take the initiative and collaborate with teachers to provide support with academic work, such as implementing a homework club and reinforcing positive efforts to complete work. Given that so few African American and Latino students take the SAT test and perform well, school counselors can offer SAT prep courses in collaboration with teachers and outside volunteers. School counselors also should explore which colleges and universities accept the ACT college entrance examination in place of the SAT. The SAT and ACT are quite different in their composition, and encouraging students to take the ACT in addition to or in place of the SAT may be beneficial because some students score significantly higher on one versus the other.
In addition to prepping students for college entrance examinations, school counselors are actively involved in exploring ways for students to finance their higher education. When providing financial aid workshops, it is important for school counselors to consider the financial barriers encountered by many African American and Latino students, especially those who are undocumented. These students’ parents may not be aware of the recent DACA program. Because DACA recipients are now eligible to pay in-state tuition in many states (though not all), providing community-based referrals concerning immigration likely would be helpful.
School counselors still need to explore other means for immigrant students to finance their education because they are not eligible to apply for financial aid, even if they become DACA recipients. Other options include attending community college, where in-state tuition rates are low, and then transferring to a four-year institution. Even though these students cannot apply for federal financial aid, they should still be encouraged to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form because colleges use this form to determine eligibility for private aid. Furthermore, together with students, school counselors can explore options for scholarships through websites such as fastweb.com, finaid.org, collegeboard.org, careerinfonet.org and edupass.org.
Culturally sensitive interventions
To reach at-risk students, school counselors first need to build strong connections with them and form relationships that are based on trust and respect. Respecting these students and facilitating a caring climate will aid in efforts to build the level of student responsibility and maintain high expectations.
School counselors need to enforce healthy and consistent boundaries and set appropriate and consistent limits both inside and outside the classroom. Often, school counselors feel uncomfortable when it comes to setting limits and “disciplining.” However, when limits are communicated in a respectful, caring manner and implemented consistently, with the understanding that educators hold the highest expectations, students — particularly at-risk students — are more likely to respond positively. On the other hand, raising your voice in response to a child’s yelling or behaving in ways that fuel angry responses serves only to perpetuate negative behaviors.
When engaging in discussions with at-risk students, school counselors should emphasize students’ strengths and build on their previous successes rather than focus on problem areas. The use of solution-focused counseling, which centers on working with students to generate solutions by following a strengths-based approach, can help struggling students identify previous successes in their lives and apply that learning to overcome present-day challenges. (For more information on solution-focused counseling, refer to the work of Gerald Sklare, Linda Metcalf and the Institute for Solution-Focused Therapy.)
Sometimes, after numerous attempts to motivate a student, a school counselor might feel discouraged and decide to shift efforts to other, more responsive, students. During these moments, it is helpful to remember that even the smallest changes can have a ripple effect and, in time, the student will build upon what he or she has learned through future interactions with educators. It is also beneficial to reach out to a trusted colleague who can help provide support and assist in preventing burnout. Working toward closing the achievement gap requires steadfast dedication and unified efforts on the part of all school stakeholders.
When engaging in discussions and activities with students and parents, school counselors need to ensure they are implementing culturally sensitive interventions. Individualized instruction and outreach to students on the part of teachers and counselors is necessary, albeit time-consuming. School counselors can consult with teachers to provide support in differentiating their curriculum so that it reaches all students, while also ensuring that it is culturally relevant.
High-achieving students often receive the educational resources necessary to access higher education regardless of whether they also receive support from their families or other outside sources. On the other hand, students of color often receive insufficient support from educators but may describe their parents or extended families as offering a strong foundation of support. However, because many parents have limited experience with higher education requirements, particularly if they did not attend college themselves, school counselors should bridge the potential information gap and provide African American and Latino students with adequate preparation for higher education. School counselors can also engage in various activities and serve as liaisons to encourage a greater sense of connection between the school and community.
Family and community partnerships and involvement
Increasing parental involvement is frequently identified as a challenging process for school counselors. The perception that the school is a place where educators teach children without interfacing with parents and caretakers arguably leaves some students without a personal advocate for academic achievement. It is important to recognize that some parents are unaware of the right to push for academic placement that is aligned with their child’s educational and career goals. Consequently, the student may miss out on particular academic opportunities that are critical for accessing higher education.
School counselors need to be able to forge connections between parents/caretakers and the school. One possible way to engage parents, particularly when families are new to the school, is to encourage connections between newcomers and other more settled families that have lived in the United States for a few years. These students and families can receive support from one another during the adjustment phase and simultaneously feel connected to the school.
In addition, bilingual (and, preferably, bicultural) school counselors are integral to supporting Latino students’ academic development and achievement. School counselors should engage in continuing education around multicultural counseling and working with a diverse student population. Forming collaborative relationships with community volunteers who represent the diverse cultural backgrounds of the students in the school is an excellent way to strengthen students’ connections within the community. This concomitantly provides students opportunities to engage with professionals from similar cultural backgrounds.
Being aware of resources in the community and partnering with community-based organizations can help to address resource-based needs. For example, a college or university in the area might be interested in partnering to bring additional resources into the school. This partnership might offer high-achieving students, including those for whom English is not their first language, the opportunity to take college courses. A Latino literature or language course taught in Spanish at the college might be of interest to high school students. The opportunity to take a college-level course could help to engage students, while simultaneously preparing them for the academic rigor associated with college course work. Properly utilizing community resources is an essential component of implementing a comprehensive school counseling program.
Fostering collaboration and enhancing school climate
School counselors can examine current structures that are in place to involve parents in the school. Rather than recreating an entirely new program, school counselors should build upon the positive aspects of existing parental programs. By focusing on the inherent strengths of existing programs and recognizing the current efforts of school personnel, school counselors are more likely to be viewed as being collaborative and more likely to achieve better results. On the other hand, teachers and other school personnel may perceive the implementation of new projects as too time-consuming.
Regarding collaboration among school personnel, school counselors can track students’ academic progress both during and subsequent to counseling interventions and then share the results with teachers and staff. Through this process, school counselors can become cognizant of specific interventions that contribute to academic success among African American and Latino students.
In terms of meeting the needs of Latino students, school counselors can build awareness of the role of bilingual programs so English language learners will have equal access to academic opportunities. Schools should provide information to their teachers and other personnel regarding the bilingual program placement process and how students acquire biliteracy. Maintaining consistent and relevant data that teachers can use to monitor the academic progress of English language learners is also helpful. Given that school counselors typically are involved in student placement and data collection, they should assume a central collaborative role in sharing information among teachers and other school personnel across all academic disciplines, including mathematics, social studies and the sciences.
Relatedly, ESL (English as a second language) students are often isolated from mainstream students, with the exception of in physical education and select elective classes. In addition, ESL students typically are not considered for placement in gifted and talented education classes. Consequently, school counselors should consult and collaborate with ESL teachers to decrease the isolation of ESL students, while simultaneously providing opportunities for these students to participate in rigorous course work.
It is essential to connect with all teachers, staff, parents, families and students to publicly define the school counselor’s role in the school building. All students, in particular African American and Latino students, may not understand when it is appropriate to reach out to the school counselor. Depending on their cultural background, students may also feel a sense of shame or discomfort in speaking with the school counselor for reasons other than academic concerns. They may also view their counselor as someone who only works with students when they excel or, on the contrary, when they have major academic deficiencies. Explicitly defining the role of the school counselor directly with students and families is essential when working with diverse student populations.
School counselors need to foster a school climate that is inclusive. African American and Latino students may experience feeling excluded by their peers on the basis of English language knowledge and/or skin color. This can happen even with students from within their same cultural group. As such, it is critical to provide counseling interventions that address both intragroup and intercultural relationships to improve school climate and promote positive relationships within and across student populations. In addition, school counseling interventions should focus on developing African American and Latino students’ sense of empowerment, self-confidence and cultural pride.
African American and Latino students are less likely to enter college and more likely to drop out of school than are their White peers. Because of this, educators and school personnel, including school counselors, have identified an urgent need to close the achievement and opportunity gaps. In keeping with the National Standards for School Counseling Programs and the Transforming School Counselor Initiative (for more information, refer to the Education Trust at edtrust.org), school counselors promote student academic achievement and college and career readiness through school and community collaboration with all key stakeholders. School counselors advocate for equal access to educational opportunities and should achieve this through the use of culturally sensitive interventions that respect diversity and communication differences. They also need to be knowledgeable of community-based resources and stay current with legislative changes that affect access to higher education.
School counselors should emphasize the importance of creating a school learning community in which teachers, staff, parents, students and community partners work together to promote academic opportunities. Implementing a comprehensive school counseling program that is equal and complementary to the school curriculum is necessary to promote the development and academic excellence of African American and Latino students.
Knowledge Share articles are adapted from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Amy L. Cook is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She has worked in urban schools and mental health agencies with Latino students, clients and families. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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