Of the ninth-graders who entered San Antonio's Thomas Jefferson High School in 2005, only half ended up graduating in 2009. And even those who finished in the top 20 percent of their class academically only moved on — if they went anywhere — to the local community college, rarely applying to more challenging schools.
“It just didn’t make sense to me,” says interim principal Joanne Cockrell, a commanding educator known for turning around struggling schools. Cockrell was called out of retirement in January to see what she could do with Jefferson, which was once a school for the city’s elite but more recently had been rated academically unacceptable by the Texas Education Agency. “What has happened to Jefferson High School?” she asked herself.
A registered historical landmark, Jefferson was built during the Depression thanks to a large bond that passed before the stock market tanked. The extravagant building, with the ornate architecture of a palatial Spanish estate, irked some struggling San Antonians at the time but wowed the rest of the country. By the end of the 1930s, it had been featured in multiple magazines, including Life, and two Hollywood movies. Today, the Jefferson High community is different: The students are more than 92 percent Hispanic, and more than 63 percent are on a free or reduced lunch plan.
In a few short months, Cockrell boosted the school’s rating to “recognized.” All it took, she says, was “showing up and making a few rules and regulations.” She believes that not only will next year’s class — the current juniors — be the school’s first with a 100 percent graduation rate, but that many of those graduates will go on to well respected universities. And one of Cockrell’s key means to that end is a 2010 University of Texas graduate named Allison Najera, placed at Jefferson through a brand new program: the Texas College Advising Corps.
“Allison is taking up that gap,” says Cockrell, referring to the process of getting college and financial aid applications in order, which so often falls by the wayside. “That gigantic gap.”
The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students to every 1 guidance counselor. The Texas Education Agency recommends 300-to-1. While it’s by no means the worst in the country — that honor goes to California — Texas’ ratio still busts both recommendations with an overall average of about 420-to-1. There are 136 districts in the state with no full-time counselor.
Launched in 2007, the National College Advising Corps, headquartered at the University of North Carolina, is intended to fill some of the gap Cockrell talks about. The program is perhaps most easily explained as the Teach for America equivalent for guidance counselors. For modest compensation (in Texas, it’s $23,600 for the year), recent college graduates are placed in schools with low college attendance rates for up to two years and asked to boost success by creating a college-focused culture, helping students understand their options and assisting them with applications. Unlike Teach for America participants, who assume a full-fledged teaching position, college advisers are seen as aides to existing guidance counselors. In fact, they are not even supposed to address students’ concerns beyond the scope of college-readiness and access, though sometimes they can be hard to separate.
Najera says she considered but decided against applying for Teach for America. “I just felt like if I was going to be responsible for these kids going from second to third grade, I wouldn’t have enough experience to do that,” she says. She knew getting kids into college was no small task, but at least she knew her way around the process — and any questions she had were answered during a five-week training session over the summer.
Coming into the program, Najera, who barely interacted with her own guidance counselor in high school admits, “I didn’t realize how much counselors have to do, and they have so much to do.”
On her first day of work as a college adviser, Najera found herself pulling a young girl out of the class registration line to help her pump breast milk. Today, the young mother and her new husband, both seniors at Jefferson, have — with Najera’s help — applied to college in San Antonio: he to St. Philip’s College and she to St. Mary’s University and the University of the Incarnate Word.
Jefferson High has one guidance counselor per grade, each of which easily exceeds 400 students, as well as the head guidance counselor, Cynthia McCarty. After years of experience, McCarty says that as a guidance counselor, between dealing with mountains of paperwork and students’ issues ranging from assault to homelessness, not to mention tasks like hall monitoring, “You are so pulled and so divided. It is so tough.”
Already this year, more than $200,000 in scholarships has been offered to Jefferson students. McCarty estimates that, at the same time last year, the total was around $50,000. Students who initially told Najera they weren’t going to go to college have applied to San Antonio College. Others who thought that SAC was where they’d go have applied to the University of Texas, Texas A&M University and Trinity University. Some students are even looking out of state: at Washington University in St. Louis, New York University and Columbia University.
One of Najera’s biggest challenges is changing a culture that has little experience with higher education. “It’s not on their minds, it’s not part of their culture and it’s not something their parents did,” Najera says. Small touches — hanging college banners in the hall, having raffles where the price of entry is the ability to name two Ivy League schools, handing out college T-shirts — help college seem real and attainable. A big boost was bringing in Rosie Castro, a local community activist and former Jefferson High parent, to speak to parents about her own fears about letting her twin boys leave for college. They both ended up at Stanford University. One is San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, and the other is state Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio.
Joaquin Castro, who recently joined the National College Advising Corps board, says that the state’s poor high school graduation rates can be considered separately from its middling guidance counselor ratios. “We have a policy failure and a resource failure,” he says, but he notes that improving the state’s counseling is “the low-hanging fruit.”
Some of what Castro views as easily fixable problems include the fact that the State Board for Educator Certification requires that a curriculum for a school counselor certificate meet 44 standards, none of which address college admission or financial aid. He also believes that the certification process for elementary and high school counselors, currently one and the same, needs to be divided because of the dramatically different issues of the two age groups. He intends to file bills addressing both issues.
As for the advising corps, he has high hopes. “I predict this program will be as big as Teach for America within 10 years,” he says.
The National College Advising Corps currently has teams in 13 states, and its Texas iteration is in its inaugural year. Overseen by the University of Texas College of Education’s Institute for Public School Initiatives, this first run consists of 15 UT grads placed in schools in San Antonio, Houston and the Rio Grande Valley. By the end of November, the 15 corps members had logged more than 540 classroom visits, nearly 4,100 one-on-one student meetings and roughly the same number of Apply Texas (the state's common application) forms completed by students.
Insulated but not entirely immune from the state’s budget cuts, the program is funded by a five-year grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and nonprofits like the College for All Texans Foundation, as well as private sources such as Bank of America. Next year, the program will expand to a target of 120 advisers and venture beyond the halls of UT. Texas A&M will come online, and so might three yet-to-be announced elite private universities.
Najera, who a year ago planned to transition from college into a public relations career, plans to re-up with the Texas program for another year and then get her master's degree in counseling. First, she has to get through the financial aid season, which begins in January. “It’s a whole other ballgame,” she says, “because it’s not something kids can do. It has to be parents coming in willing to give up their financial information.” She also plans to make the rounds to freshman and sophomore classes for the first time to convince them that grades in the early years do matter, and that they need to be involved in activities so they don’t have to leave that section of their college application blank — like many of her seniors did this year.
Najera's biggest advice for future college advisers: “Get to know the staff. They’re either going to be your biggest advocate or your worst enemy. It’s so hard to do things without support.” While her experience has been positive, she has heard of other advisers being mistaken for interlopers and having a more difficult time bringing staffers around to their side. “Ask a lot of questions,” Najera says. “You want to come in confident, but not act like you know everything, because you don’t.”
McCarty can barely contain her emotions when she talks about Najera. She says that baby boomers, like herself, have struggled to find the right personnel to take over their jobs. But, looking at Najera, her eyes begin to water. She says she’s “finally ready” to hand it over.
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