By Jennifer Wohlleb
Getting students to focus on college and career readiness has been a little easier this year in 24 high schools served by the Green River Regional and Ohio Valley educational cooperatives.
Nearly $7.8 million of GRREC’s four-year, $40 million federal Race to the Top grant is paying for college and career readiness coaches who work directly with students, helping them prepare for their postsecondary lives.
PHOTO: Henry County High School’s college and career readiness coach Chelsey Tingle works with students from the middle school to help them meet benchmarks. Pictured at right is Dawson Allen and in the middle is Owen Berry, both seventh-graders. While high school is the focus of most of the coaches provided through GRREC’s Race to the Top grant, working with students of all ages helps create a culture geared toward postsecondary success.
“This is such a different world,” said Sandra Baker, GRREC’s associate executive director and the grant’s interim project director. “Students today need to have someone who can help them navigate that. And many times we talk about students of poverty or students who do not come from a home where one of the parents went to college. To have someone in every single high school who knows all the ins and the outs of all those pieces and knows how to individualize for every child that college and career path through conversations with that child about their interests and their goals for life is invaluable.”
How that works differs from school to school, depending on the specific needs of each school and students.
“The No. 1 thing we are here to do is help identify and remove any barriers that might prevent a student from being college or career ready,” said Mitzi Holland, Monroe County High School’s college and career readiness coach. “That role might be different in Monroe County than it is in another district, but we’re all working for that same goal.”
She said it’s not all about going to college.
“We want everyone to go who is ready and can go, but it’s more about making sure that kids have the skills to move on to the next level,” she said, “whether it be it college, vocational school or going directly into the workforce with skills that they obtained in high school.”
Holland has developed a four-year template to help students keep their eye on the future once they identify a potential career path or areas of interest.
“It has all of the required courses for each grade level and then it has all the electives that apply to them. So what we’re trying to do, and we’re working on this with our eighth graders/incoming freshmen, is to develop a four-year plan for high school,” she said.
She said if a student’s interest changes, so can the template.
“It’s a living document, they can change it every year, but it gives them a goal, it gives them a purpose and it allows them to see each year what they need to complete and that they can be successful,” Holland said.
College and career readiness coach Chelsey Tingle focuses much of her time at Henry County High School on tutoring.
“ I think each school has a different focus depending on its needs,” she said. “This school has a huge grasp already on college and career readiness. When I came in, I said I’m only here to enhance or nurture what you’re already doing and one of the needs was increasing our college and career readiness benchmarks across the student population. So my focus is seniors for that, so I will tutor students for that.”
Tingle said visits from college admissions counselors, the filling out of college applications, helping parents and students through the financial aid process and job shadowing days have been effective tools in college and career prep.
“Even if they said they weren’t interested in going to college, we still had them fill out an application for (Jefferson Community and Technical College) because it was free and that way they got the feel of, ‘You know what? I did get accepted into college,’” she said. “It might change their mindset when they get that letter, ‘I didn’t think I could get accepted, I didn’t know this was available to me.’ It’s kind of exciting to see that change some minds.”
Technology is playing a big role in how Tingle interacts with students.
“I’m on Twitter and I have tweeted over 200 links to scholarships, so I encourage all the kids to follow me. I follow them first in hopes that they’ll follow me, and they do,” she said.
And while helping students through these processes is part of her job, Tingle has learned over the course of this first year that she needs to help students learn to stand on their own.
“With the job shadowing, they all want me to find someone for them …now when I go in, I say, ‘I would love to help you, but this is your future not mine and I can’t hold your hand, your teacher can’t hold your hand through all of this. You need to own this and you’re going to be much more proud of yourself at the end,’” she said. “When I went in this (second) time and gave that speech, I had far fewer kids needing help ... this is their life and they’ve embraced it.”
Henry County Schools Superintendent Tim Abrams said having someone whose sole focus is college and career readiness will make a big difference for their district.
“(College and career readiness) was something that was everyone’s responsibility, and it still is,” he said. “Every counselor has to focus on career readiness and that phrase has become very commonplace with everyone that works in the school business now, but having one person where that is their sole focus, that is very, very important.”
Holland, who has a near-constant flow of students in and out of her office, said the GRREC and OVEC regions are lucky to have this program.
“The students are so hungry for knowledge about what it takes to go to college or what it takes to move to the next level,” she said. “They are here all the time in my office asking questions. It’s just remarkable to be in the middle of it all.”
Baker said the goal of this part of the grant is to make these coaching positions sustainable and replicable across the state and the country.
“We hope they’ve built this network so that they have this capacity beyond the grant that keeps them going, that also builds it to where the school can’t imagine not having their coach,” she said. “The end goal is to have something that can be replicated, with clear criteria.”