May 9, 2013 | by Liam Bird

liam_with_students.JPGNew Eyes, New Destinations

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Marcel Proust

Though the American School Counselor Association recommends an ideal counselor-to-student ratio of 100:1, the nationwide average was 457:1 in 2009.  As Illinois faces one of the worst budget deficits in the nation—$43.8 billion in FY2011—it is no surprise that cuts are being made across the board, but how do these budgetary shortfalls manifest in the schools that we serve?  To begin, Illinois currently has one of the worst counselor-to-student ratios in the nation: 672:1.  

What does this mean for the students that we serve? In Chicago Public Schools (CPS), 35% of graduating seniors in the class of 2011 were matched for selective or very selective schools, but two-thirds of these students ended up under-matching—meaning they were qualified for a more selective postsecondary institution, but chose a less selective one. Arguably, these students ended up being under-matched because they lacked access to postsecondary planning resources that a counselor could supply if the student-to-counselor ratio was right.

That’s where Umoja’s work fits. In real time, Umoja partners with schools to up the level of postsecondary resources in a way that works to provide direct support when and where urgency exists. Because of the presence of the College & Career team at Manley High School, the counselor-to-student ratio is reduced to a manageable level. The College & Career team works to transcend a “college for all” mentality and instead engages in realistic optimism, which meets each student where they are in the postsecondary process and ensures that we are authentic leaders in the lives of the students that we serve with their best interest at heart.

I personally work with the College & Career team at Manley Career Academy High School to help students develop their own road map for life after high school. In mapping out postsecondary options with us, the students learn to capitalize on their resiliency in order to navigate around obstacles on the way to their postsecondary destinations. 

What does that look like? For example, every year, the College & Career team takes several groups of students on college trips to expose them to a range of postsecondary options. During my first year working with Umoja, immediately following a three day college trip, there were several attendees who underwent a marked transformation. Though the students had averaged below a 2.0 GPA throughout their high school careers, they finished their last two semesters on the honor roll; likewise, their behavior and attendance improved. The starting point was a college tour with Umoja.

The increased dedication of the students reminded me that resilience sometimes appears as individuals’ breaking out of patterns of complacency when new potential destinations appear on their horizons. The students begin constructing new landscapes by looking at what had always been with new eyes on their own road to discovery. Gradually, blog_pic_1_Small.JPGcollege was becoming a real option that they were mobilizing toward.

In the era of the decline of big government, and amidst deepening deficits in our state, ensuring a quality education for students regardless of their zip code is a major challenge, but it is essential for us to foster the kindling of our democratic ideals and to ensure our overall sustainability as a country. If our goal is to facilitate the process of self-discovery and self-actualization for all students in District 299, it is my belief that we also need to facilitate a simultaneous campaign for the policy-makers determining student access: helping them adopt “new eyes” in analyzing the importance of social-emotional learning resources in the lives of the students that we serve.

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