Professional Pathways: A Successful New IACAC Venture
By Beth Gilfillan, Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart
Happy New Year! It’s hard to believe the school year is halfway over and my time as President is as well! This year has been full of amazing programs, dedicated professionals, and significant progress in IACAC. While so many things have happened this fall that I’d love to talk about, I want to focus today on one in particular: Professional Pathways. Let me take you back to January of 2015. Annie Kremer and I heard about a program that WACAC (Western ACAC) does called District Directions. Essentially, they adopt a district’s counselors and provide them with over a year of data-driven, college-focused professional development. Annie and I attended the main portion of the program – the retreat – in San Diego that month. To say that this was life-changing for me is an understatement. On the plane home, I wrote a four-page reflection (or as some of my colleagues have called it – my “Jerry Maguire mission statement”). My reflection started with this, “It’s a great time to be a school counselor! I’ve been saying this all year, but I sincerely believe it! I had the opportunity to observe one of the best counselor outreach/professional development programs I’ve ever seen and I’m ready to bring this kind of focus and attention to school counselors in Illinois! You get the idea that this was incredible, right??
We shared the information about District Directions with the IACAC Executive Board and began brainstorming how we could bring this type of program to Illinois. Four brave souls agreed to join me in a committee: Drew Eder, Kato Gupta, Amy Belstra, and Chris Merle. This fall, we added Nicole Pinelli, an intern from DePaul University, to our team. Over the course of the next few months, we researched, surveyed, crunched numbers, and more, culminating in a budget proposal to the Executive Board in the summer. The budget was approved at $12,000; this is one of the largest expenses an IACAC program has ever had, but the Board recognized this work as important and worthwhile, and for that, the committee will be ever grateful!
After securing the budget, the committee set out to secure a district. Waukegan Community Unit School District 60 was selected for many reasons. It’s an under-resourced school, with many at-risk students (79% high school graduation rate, 49% of graduates enrolled in 4-year or community colleges, 62.7% freshmen on track, 73% low income). Waukegan High School counselors have reached out to IACAC in the past for help and resources, and when the committee met with Waukegan administrators, they were immediately on board and grateful for the opportunity to offer their counselors support. They even asked to include their Middle School counselors, which the committee supported, as well as the Board, for the additional costs. The Waukegan District has 15 high school counselors and 11 middle school counselors.
The committee met with all of the counselors in September to introduce the program and do a needs assessment through various discussions and activities. It was evident that the counselors were craving support as well as training, and appreciated their voices being heard. From the information obtained at that meeting, we developed a program for the main focus – the data-driven retreat. We recruited additional volunteers to present and lead the counselors during the 2-day retreat, solicited donations for the retreat, and continued to work with the counselors to develop a program that would be tailored to and relevant to the needs of the Waukegan counselors and their work.
The Professional Pathways retreat was held on December 9-10 at the Grand Geneva Resort. The setting was beautiful and professional for 24 hours of hard work! We were lucky enough to have the guidance of one of the founders of WACAC’s District Directions – Peggy Hock – with us for the entire program. In addition, we had 22 volunteers who led workshops, engaged in brainstorming sessions, and shared Waukegan-specific college information with the counselors. The retreat involved sessions on using data to drive student and school improvement, admission case studies, financial aid, building collaborative relationships, IACAC resources and updates, among others. The high school counselors also had a “speed dating” lunch where they met with representatives from 14 different colleges. This provided insight into how each college operates, how Waukegan students have done at their schools, and a how they can help students better achieve at each school. Throughout the program, Waukegan counselor teams (one for each of the two high schools and one joint middle school team) developed action plans to improve one aspect of their college success rates. The last session of the retreat allowed each team to present their plans to the committee, the other counselors, and several district and building administrators. The committee will follow up with the teams throughout the year to make sure they are on track and to offer other resources and support.
Overall, the feedback for the inaugural Professional Pathways retreat has been outstanding! The counselors valued the chance to connect and collaborate with each other, to have other professionals from outside their district to brainstorm with and learn from, and to use data to guide their practices. Additionally, they were grateful for the opportunity to feel appreciated and treated as professionals. A comment from one of the counselors sums it up: “In my 30 years of education I have never had the privilege of staying at an overnight retreat at all. Let alone the venue. I feel closer to the department and mission more than ever. Thanks for making all of us feel important, and necessary. Thanks for a fruitful and wonderful experience.”
In WACAC, the results and feedback have been incredible. Counselors have been added to three of the four districts after taking part in the program, one district saw a 28% increase in students taking the PSAT, and another district saw their FAFSA completion rate increase from 32% to 66%! We will be sure to keep you updated on the Professional Pathways goals and progress, but we are already on the right track. To me, this is a powerful example of how IACAC can further our mission and strategic plan. As we stated in our proposal to the Board last summer, “According to the membership survey from 2014-15, support for high school counselors as well as more work for underrepresented students are two areas that members identified as ways IACAC can be of greater help. This program will most likely lead to increased membership in IACAC and more widespread knowledge of our organization and what services we can provide.” I’m so proud to be part of this organization and thankful to the committee, presenters, Executive Board, and the members who believe in our organization.