Supporting Counselors to Support Students: Professional Pathways in IL
Supporting Counselors to Support Students: Professional Pathways in ILCrystal Barrick, Assistant Director, Communications
When asked what inspired her to launch the Professional Pathways program, Beth Gilfillan told All Access, “From my first year as a high school counselor, I recognized my own need to learn about — and continue to stay updated on — college counseling trends and changes. While that is such a large part of what we are expected to do as high school counselors, most counselors receive little to no training on this during their formal education, and opportunities for training are limited.”
“In the past several years,” she continued, “I have also seen insufficient training and support for counselors in high schools that serve underrepresented or first-generation students. These are the counselors who typically need the most resources and support, yet they do not receive the funds or time to pursue outside professional development.”
Professional Pathways, which operates through the Illinois Association for College Admission Counseling (IACAC), gives counselors the data and research, professional development opportunities, time, and supportive partners they need to develop new strategies and approaches for preparing their students for postsecondary success.
We spoke with Gilfillan, president of IACAC and counselor at Woodlands Academy, and Drew Eder, a counselor at Highland Park High School and member of the IACAC High School Professional Development Committee, to learn more about the program.
The interview below has been lightly edited and condensed.
All Access: What motivated you to create Professional Pathways?
Beth Gilfillan: District Directions, the program in San Diego after which Professional Pathways is modeled, is data-driven and responsive to the particular needs of each district it serves. Its volunteer faculty spends over a year with its counselors, gets to know them, assesses their strengths and opportunities for growth, and tailors programs to them. I was amazed at this level of commitment and the emphasis on data and concrete programming. Often, professional development opportunities for counselors teach us about issues or updates in the college counseling world, but they do not offer strategies for improving or measuring the effectiveness of interventions. District Directions and Professional Pathways measure what is working and what isn’t and train counselors so they feel empowered to make changes.
After attending the two-day District Directions retreat in San Diego, I was determined to make this happen in Illinois. Through the support of IACAC’s executive board and the High School Counselor Professional Development committee, we were able to start working with a school district in late summer of 2015.
AA: Why is it valuable for counselors to have programs like Professional Pathways?
BG: The landscape for high school counselors, especially in the college realm, is constantly changing. From new policies on admission tests and applications to financial aid changes, we have to continuously educate ourselves so we can best serve our students. Rarely is this education offered within our schools; usually professional development is geared toward teachers. And even when counselors are allowed to pursue training outside their district, they often need to use personal time and/or funding.
Professional Pathways aims to partner with districts that have received little training in the past but have counselors who are eager to learn and work toward college access and attainment goals. In Waukegan, for example, the counselors rarely have time to collaborate and share best practices. During our retreat, they had time to brainstorm, collaborate, and plan together. They left with clear, data-driven goals and ways to measure success, which they have already implemented.
Drew Eder: I believe the most important qualities of Professional Pathways are that the work is data-driven and the professional development is concentrated on the specific needs of the counseling staff.
Prior to the retreat, the Professional Pathways staff spends a half day with district counselors to complete a thorough needs assessment. This helps us build relationships and allows the retreat to be catered toward the needs of each counselor. Breakout session topics and speakers are chosen based on feedback from the group instead of assumed needs.
The focus on local data from each school is also valuable. Having disaggregated data to guide and focus discussion is imperative, as is allowing time for counselors to concentrate on their craft as a team and set measurable goals.
AA: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the district — for counselors and for students — since launching Professional Pathways?
BG: I have already seen and heard an empowerment in the department that was not as strong prior to this program.
In the initial phase of the program, we paired each Waukegan counselor up with an experienced counselor to work as a Professional Pathways “partner.” Each partner acts as someone to bounce ideas off and share best practices and professional development resources with. Many of the partners communicate regularly and have said that having a partner outside their district has opened up new opportunities.
AA: What excites you most about this work?
BG: I am most excited to see counselors feel like they have a voice and can make positive changes — even small ones — that will have a direct impact on their students’ college outcomes. I enjoy seeing counselors start to feel comfortable with the college search and application processes and have the confidence to implement changes in their practice. Seeing the counselors come together, brainstorm, and problem-solve is amazing, especially because they did not have many opportunities to do this in the past.
I am also excited about the level of support and interest through IACAC and beyond. We have 25 experienced counselors volunteering as partners for each of the Waukegan counselors, six dedicated committee members who plan the program, and 29 volunteers from high schools, colleges, and nonprofit organizations who helped run the retreat. Everyone is eager to help train and support this district, its counselors, and the students they serve.
DE: The most exciting part of the work for me was watching the counselors come together to create their action plans during the retreat. While the overnight part of the program added an expense, I believe it was the true difference-maker. People enjoyed each other’s company, laughed over dinner, and the fun atmosphere carried over to the work the next day; you could see people working as a team and problem-solving together. The extra time allowed counselors to let go of the work at school and focus.
AA: What advice would you give counselors interested in starting an initiative like this in their own communities?
BG: Try it! One thing I’ve learned is, even small changes can make great impacts. Take advantage of existing community resources and collaborate with community efforts. It’s important to have buy-in from the administration, so make sure you know the community and district and have concrete examples of how your program can positively affect their college access and attainment.
And, most importantly, have a dedicated, passionate team in place. It makes everything easier and more worthwhile in the long run.
DE: Find a small group of dedicated professionals who want to mentor a group of counselors, and go for it! The support from our ACAC executive board was tremendous, and its approval for two years of funding was instrumental.
We also owe a great deal to the team of counselors in California who originally ran this program and allowed us to “steal” it. They were incredible mentors.
Finally, don’t be afraid to make the program your own. We used some parts of the California model, but others were not applicable to us. Make it your own and give it a shot. Even if there are some bumps in the road, the impact on counselors and students will be tremendous!