MUHS takes new look at college prep efforts

MIDDLEBURY — A group of area parents are urging the UD-3 school board to invest in some additional college counseling for the Middlebury Union High School Guidance Department. They argued that the lack of such counseling is resulting in some students being unprepared for the college application process, with others taking a pass altogether on higher education.
There are currently three school counselors at MUHS, who advise students on a myriad of academic issues, including planning for post-secondary education. None are officially designated as “college counselors,” and there is no official state certification for such a position, according to MUHS Principal William Lawson.
He pointed to a November 2015 Vermont legislative report called “Using the Evidenced-Based Method to Identify Adequate Spending Levels for Vermont Schools” that recommends one counselor per 200 students in grade 6-12 schools. MUHS has 634 students.
Parents who spoke up at last Tuesday’s UD-3 school board meeting said they are concerned that students are not getting enough information on the high school subjects, testing and application process they need to enhance their chances of getting into their preferred colleges or universities.
Shoreham resident Kate McIntosh is the parent of two students, one of whom is at the high school. She also identified herself as a local pediatrician who occasionally discusses education issues with her young patients.
“I talk to kids every day about their hopes, their dreams, their goals, their futures and as I come through this, I have become more and more concerned about college counseling,” McIntosh said.
While expressing appreciation for what she said have been efforts to “improve college preparation and college counseling at the high school level,” McIntosh added she believes that a lot of the college-related counseling is being done by “a connected group of parents” who are backfilling a gap in high school guidance.
“It is not the guidance counselors’ fault,” McIntosh said. “The guidance counselors are not trained college counselors, and to do this work, you need to be a trained college counselor.”
McIntosh said some parents who have had experience with the college application process are taking on the task of creating schedules for their children to get them prepared to apply for their preferred colleges.
“That maintains a status quo that isn’t fair,” McIntosh said, referring to students whose parents do not have college backgrounds.
She said she is aware of MUHS students who, at the later stages of their high school careers, find themselves behind in their respective searches for a college.
“Those are the people we are slighting by not having adequate college counseling,” McIntosh said.
Weybridge resident Puanani Perdue added her voice to those seeking college counselors at MUHS. She said her own child would be entering MUHS within around five years, a time by which she hopes the high school will have brought college counselors on staff.
“Their focus is on helping these children who don’t necessarily have to have those basic needs met, but have the higher awareness of what they want in life,” she said of college counselors. “I’m hoping that as we move forward in the community and as a high school, that we will consider that’s where the college counselors and the guidance counselors are not one, because the guidance counselors are going to be focusing on the children who have basic needs that need to be met.”
Janet Barkdoll, an MUHS sophomore, delivered an emotional message to the UD-3 board last Tuesday about what she said were difficulties that students face in positioning themselves for college admittance.
“I feel it would be interesting to ask students what their experiences have been,” Barkdoll said. “I think it is important that we remember that we can’t implement one thing and it’s going to work for all of the students.”
MUHS senior Nick Beauchamp, student representative to the UD-3 board, said he believes students might just need some more prompting to take advantage of the services that are already in place.
“The guidance counselors there do know how to help out students and they are an available resource,” said Beauchamp. “I think the issue is that students aren’t pressured to go there … You’re told to sign up on your own and figure out a time. In a lot of cases, for a lot of students, they don’t really decide to go to college until their 12th-grade year, and at that point, it’s catch-up. Because they weren’t led in that direction, they didn’t know they had to go to the guidance office and ask those kinds of questions. The resources are there, I just don’t think students are aware they are there or know that they should be doing those things.”
BEYOND AP AND SAT
UD-3 board member Michelle Bayliss of Weybridge is also a professional college counselor and author on the subject. She said that based on her research, a high school the size of MUHS “typically has 5 to 10 college counselors.” She said while MUHS students have shown a decent track record in gaining acceptance to “top 10” colleges, they have not fared as well with other selective colleges — such as Swarthmore, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania. The reason, according to Bayliss, is that not enough students are taking AP (Advanced Placement) courses and SAT Subject Tests. She added she believes all 10th graders should be taking the PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test).
“When you come up from the 8th grade, someone should be asking you about your hopes and dreams,” Bayliss said. “If you wait until your junior year, you’ve already screwed it up.”
Bayliss said students should be hearing that they need to take subject tests as part of the educational foundation they should build prior to applying to colleges.
“Forty-seven out of 50 of the selective schools require, or highly recommend, subject tests,” Bayliss said. “This is an easy thing to fix. All of the classes should be aligned with subject tests, and they will have more options.”
Lawson has proposed adding around $36,000 to next year’s MUHS budget to enhance college counseling. Bayliss called that suggested infusion “better than nothing.” But added she had hoped the school might earmark some of its surplus funds toward the hiring of college counselors. UD-3 is carrying a current fund balance of around $589,000. Current plans call for $300,000 in surplus money to be applied toward improvements to MUHS and MUMS security, as well as some new lockers at the high school. Plans call for another $289,000 to be used to offset the tax impacts of the fiscal year 2017 spending proposal for UD-3.
Administrators and teachers at MUHS counter that students are getting plenty of counseling and opportunities to plan for college (see accompanying story providing an overview of MUHS guidance offerings for those students post-secondary education).
Larry O’Connor is a special educator at MUHS. He said MUHS should make sure that all students benefit from any additional counseling resources, and not just those who want to get into college.
“We are going to have to make (budget) choices here, and my concern is that adding those college counselors and adding positions like that will help the kids that, overall, are going to do pretty well in life — these kids who are going to college; they have their act together and can figure out what to do,” O’Connor said. “The kids that I work with day-in-and-day-out are struggling to get through each and every day. If we have extra resources, I’d much rather they be used on the kids who are our neediest and most at-risk.”
O’Connor noted a recent suggestion by some in the school community that MUHS establish a scholarship fund to help students defray the costs of college-related subject tests. O’Connor believes such a fund, if created, should also be extended to less academically inclined students who might want to apply to a welding school or auto body school, for example.
Bjarki Sears is a social studies teacher at the high school. He said he was disappointed that those lobbying for better college preparatory services had not discussed the matter more in-depth with teachers prior to bringing the matter to the UD-3 board.
“I know our guidance counselors; I know how much they care, and I know how much they want to grow and keep learning,” Sears said. “I wonder, have we sat down with those counselors and had days of training and talked about it and said, ‘Here’s how we can get better?’”
Parents should not assume that teachers are resistant to change, Sears said.
“I do resist the idea that we are not open to change,” Sears said. “We can continue to change. We have knowledge we can bring and our guidance counselors have knowledge they can bring, and they can also grow.’ Let’s think of a good, positive, collaborative way to grow, where it doesn’t become a public flogging.”
Devin McLaughlin, a UD-3 board member from Middlebury, suggested more conversation with parents and school administrators on the status of current counseling services — provided by Erin Dufault, Lauren Daley and Allison Stebe — and how they might be improved.
“I think public input and hearing concerns is a positive thing, but in an ideal world, I would like the administration working with folks who have concerns and somehow move forward to improve what we have and identify whether we really are missing something and therefore we need to plug it in or somehow solve it,” he said.
LOOK AT THE DATA
UD-3 board members last Tuesday reviewed an “MUHS Post-Secondary Planning Services Data Report” (see link to document, below). It includes information on students’ college acceptance rates and enrollment plans for post-secondary education. The report is also intended to “illuminate improvements that can be made in supporting students as they prepare for life after high school,” according to a purpose statement contained in the document.
Here are some of the statistics in the report, which can be found on-line at addisonindependent.com:
•  76 percent of the MUHS class of 2015 declared plans to attend “formal post-secondary education programs” in the fall of 2015. Another 16 percent planned to go directly enter the workforce.
•  Over a five-year span, 11.8 percent of all MUHS students who enrolled in college immediately following graduation did so at the top 25 ranked universities or national liberal arts colleges.
•  Members of the MUHS class of 2014 answered a survey that revealed 55 percent of respondents either agreed, or “strongly agreed,” that MUHS provided the guidance necessary to reach their goals.
Addison Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Peter Burrows said the school and surrounding community should work together to create better results for college-bound students.
“This is one of the big policy pieces in the state and the country,” Burrows said. “This is not a conversation that is going to be solved with one solution. This is a very complex issue. It involves socio-economic status, and it involves the kinds of things that kids are doing at home that we need to do a better job of reaching out an supporting, if we want to change the data.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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