In her final meetings with 68 graduating seniors this year, Hope College Prep counselor Lindsay Brown made this simple request: “Remember my number.” When her name popped up on caller ID, she told them, she wanted them to answer.

“They knew I was going to harass them this summer to make sure everything was A-OK,” she says. “I’m like: ‘Miss Brown is not going to leave you, I’m going to be right there for you.’”

For the last two summers, Brown has worked as a transition counselor at the Englewood high school, helping newly minted graduates clear all the hurdles to college enrollment. Hers was one of 82 district-run high schools doing the work this past summer, up from 72 last summer.

This investment in summer counseling — split equally between the district and schools — represents a return to a strategy CPS launched in the early 2000s to increase enrollment in higher education. Back then, counselors say, the district had more resources and covered the full cost of summer counselors, invested in sending students on college trips and funded career and technical programs in more schools than have them today.

Now the district is struggling — $200 million in cuts were announced this summer and more could be on the way.

But still, CPS spent about $300,000 on the counseling initiative this summer, up from $250,000 when it began last year. (Ten high schools received no additional money from the district for their summer work this year because they used college and career coaches who work year round.) Counselors worked 20 hours a week for two and a half months.

Meanwhile, CPS already had added — in 2013 — college enrollment and persistence rates to its school accountability system. The number of CPS graduates who enroll in college and persist through their first year now account for 10 percent of a high school’s overall score. (Catalyst’s In Depth Winter 2015 issue focused on college persistence.)

About 62 percent of CPS graduates in the class of 2012 enrolled in a two- or four-year college within a year, compared with 69 percent statewide, according to the latest state data. (Though the number of CPS graduates who immediately enrolled in college by the fall was lower: 56 percent.)

A big part of the summer transition counselor’s job is navigating the complex enrollment process after students are accepted to college. That can include helping students accept and negotiate financial aid packages, register for courses, sign up for health insurance, find housing and cover unexpected costs.

But several counselors interviewed by Catalyst say they are frustrated they’re being asked to focus on college and career work while juggling higher caseloads, more administrative duties — such as proctoring standardized tests — and less time to do the kind of one-on-one advising they see as necessary to guiding students as they make their plans.

“If I had more time to spend with my students, maybe that would affect college-going ratings and persistence,” says Shelby Wyatt, who’s been a counselor for the last 17 years at Kenwood Academy High School.

Trying to stem the ‘summer melt’

In addition to helping outgoing graduates, transition counselors also are responsible for assisting seniors in summer school and incoming freshmen.

“It is more work, but we believe it is the kind of work counselors enjoy,” says Janice Jackson, the district’s chief education officer. “It really helps to supplement what, traditionally, a family would do to support a student through this transition.”

Schools are not required to participate, though nearly all did. Only six high schools weren’t part of the program this year.

Counselors in the program identified students who needed the most help by reviewing ACT scores and grade-point averages. They also made a special effort to connect graduates with resources — such as African-American or Latino student groups — that can make students feel more comfortable when they get on campus.

Brown at Hope College Prep saw about five students a day during her three-day-a-week summer schedule, often working with students on finances and communication skills. She talked to parents about payment plans, encouraged talks with college financial aid offices and advised students to get copies of books at the library if they couldn’t afford to buy them.

School counselor Lindsay Brown with senior Monica Tubbs on Hope College Prep's college decision day in May.
School counselor Lindsay Brown with senior Monica Tubbs on Hope College Prep’s college decision day in May.

“A majority of my students are first-generation,” Brown says. “Parents are happy to see this [counseling]. They don’t know the first step about college. … Parents trusted what I was telling them.”

It is estimated that nationally, about 10 to 20 percent of students accepted to college don’t enroll — a drop off that’s been dubbed the “summer melt.” Most are “low-income minority students planning to enroll in community college,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.

That’s been true in Chicago for at least a decade. A 2008 report by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research  — using a sample of about 5,200 CPS high school students in the class of 2005 — showed that just over half of students who aspired to attend a four-year college were accepted, but 10 percent ultimately didn’t enroll.

For low-income students, summer counseling can be an especially effective intervention.

In a study published last year in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, researchers found that a group of around 400 public high school graduates in Boston had better outcomes when they received targeted summer counseling than some 520 of their peers who didn’t — especially the poor students. The study was conducted over the summer of 2011.

Intervention group Comparison group without extra supports
Students who immediately enrolled in college* 83 percent 78.4 percent
Poor students who immediately enrolled in college 88.6 percent 76.3 percent
Persisted into second semester 80.7 percent 74.2 percent
Poor students who persisted into second semester 86.5 percent 72.6 percent
Persisted into sophomore year 71.6 percent 63.8 percent
Poor students who persisted into sophomore year 77.6 percent 64.4 percent

*A review by the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences found this first outcome was not large enough to be considered statistically significant, but the rest in this chart were.

The significant effect of summer counseling on students in poverty has “been a consistent finding,” in other related research says Ben Castleman, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, who co-authored the Boston study.

“That was sort of a lightning bolt or guidepost going forward,” he says.

Counseling challenges

School counselors say while summer transition work can make a difference, there are limits to its effectiveness, especially at schools where one counselor is attempting to contact hundreds of recent graduates.

CPS has about 300 high school counselors and about 65 coaches who work in some capacity on college and career advising.

On average, caseloads at district-run high schools are 303 students to a counselor, according to a February report from a consultant to the Donors Forum, a statewide organization focusing on philanthropy. But caseloads vary significantly across the city and can be much higher, especially on the Southwest Side.

Devante Taylor, 18, (left seated) speaks with Ana Llorens, a career and technical education coordinator, at a Sullivan High School event in August 2014. Sullivan has participated in the district's summer melt initiative the last two years.
Devante Taylor, 18, speaks with Ana Llorens, a career and technical education coordinator, at a Sullivan High School summer melt event in August 2014.

And that affects summer transition workloads. At Kelly High School in Brighton Park, for example, school counselor Kirsten Argyelan says she had 530 graduates to contact.

Counselors use multiple forms of communication to stay in touch with recent graduates: email, phone calls, texts, social media, home visits and asking other trusted adults to intervene.

But routinely, some students never respond, counselors say, noting that is due in part to changes in their contact information.

Counselors have 10-month positions under their union contract, so if they sign up for this program to get extra pay, they end up with little time off, which can lead to burnout. (Though some schools lessen the burden by splitting the summer work between two counselors or have a college and career coach to help.)

History of summer work

Sarah Briggs, an elementary school counselor who’s also worked in high schools and Central Office, says that in the 2000s under former CEO Arne Duncan, the district pushed post-secondary counseling — including summer transition counselors — and “a lot of money went into making sure we had the resources we needed.”

But not all schools took advantage of that support, she says, and when the district’s financial outlook soured, it was scaled back.

District funds that used to be available to take students on college tours — especially important for helping students visit out-of-state historically black colleges that may offer better financial aid than local options — are now “almost non-existent,” Briggs says.

The Duncan administration also brought in non-union college and career coaches who worked year-round and didn’t always have counseling credentials. Counselors protested at first — the coaches were given work counselors were trained to do, but didn’t always have time for because of other responsibilities.

Victor Ochoa, a school counselor at Schurz High School, says part of the problem was — and continues to be — the lack of a well-defined job description for school counselors in their contract. As a result, he says, principals can load on extra duties, and counselors can’t file grievances.

“You’re at the mercy of the person in your building,” he says.

Though in many buildings, school counselors welcome the assistance of college and career coaches.

“There is so much on the counselors’ plates and so much they are responsible for,” says Bridgid Titley, a college and career coach at Von Steuben High School in North Park, who has a master’s in school counseling. “One other human who can take on some of that is helpful. I didn’t think there’s any tension in our school on whether this position should exist.”

But not all schools can afford them. At Kelvyn Park High School in Hermosa, college and career coach Sheena Shukla was laid off in late August due to budget cuts, after working on the summer melt initiative at her school. Now the high school has just two school counselors for about 780 students.

“A lot of my students who were seniors were devastated,” she says of the position loss. “I know a lot of them are asking: What will happen to their fellow peers who are juniors and sophomores?”

Sharing data

To help transition counselors, 17 colleges in the Chicago Higher Education Compact shared data for the first time this summer that tracked graduates as they prepared to enroll in college. Announced in December, the Compact is a partnership between CPS and 21 colleges and universities that focuses on raising college graduation rates.

Each college identified up to eight key enrollment steps— such as submitting final transcripts, accepting a financial aid package and attending a summer orientation — and told counselors whether or not students had completed them. (CPS says the initiative is ongoing so outcome data are not yet available.)

While some counselors found the tool useful — especially for students unable to be reached via other communication methods — others said the data weren’t that helpful because there was no information on students who weren’t accepted at a college in the Compact.

For example, at Kelly High School 271 of 530 graduates were listed in the Compact report, while at Hope College Prep, just six of 68 graduates were listed. (The reports included data on all students who were accepted to a Compact school, regardless of whether they intended to enroll.)

And if a student changed plans, the data may not yet reflect that, counselors said.

“That was a waste of time,” says Ann Maeda, a counselor at Schurz High School who had better luck finding out how her students were doing through meetings, emails and phone calls.

For several counselors, the drawback was that many of their graduates are heading to one of seven City Colleges of Chicago, which are not in the Compact, despite the fact they enroll more CPS graduates than any other institution. In the class of 2013, more than a quarter of all graduates who enrolled in college attended a City College.

Counselors say that data sharing would have benefitted them. They often see students get confused and have paperwork issues while trying to enroll in City Colleges.

“Sometimes the City Colleges are the most difficult for our students to enroll in,” says Kelly High School counselor Kirsten Argyelan.

Jackson, the chief education officer, says that while City Colleges are not part of the Compact, they’ve made other improvements to attract CPS students.

“I don’t think it would be fair to say they’re left out,” she says.

Ariel Ferreira, a City Colleges spokesperson, told Catalyst that City Colleges “already is working to achieve the goals outlined in the new Higher Education Compact” and that City Colleges and CPS “work very closely together to ensure Chicago high school students are prepared for further college and careers” through initiatives like dual-credit courses, Early College STEM schools and the Star Scholarship that provides financial aid to more accomplished CPS graduates. The two systems also have a data-sharing agreement.

“Data of this sort is available at the City Colleges district level, but not yet available by high school cohorts,” Ferreira wrote in an emailed statement.

Decisions need more time

Counselors say while the transition work is important, it’s also a reminder that many of the conversations that don’t happen until the summer before college need to happen much sooner.

“Every counselor will tell you, if they were able to do a better job of addressing college and career exploration [in elementary school]… you would have better results in high school,” says Briggs, the elementary school counselor.

Michelle Porter, a social studies teacher who did summer transition counseling at Tilden High School in the Canaryville neighborhood this year, says that at her school, deciding whether to take out a loan to pay for college “is really the determinate factor” in whether students end up going.

“We have to engage parents earlier and have honest conversations with parents before graduation,” she says.

If parents don’t want to or are unable to take out a loan to help, that would send students sooner on a hunt for more aid.

“If we can get them looking for scholarships earlier, that might make a difference in whether they  get on campus or not,” she says. “It’s a huge thing I’ve dealt with this summer…. That’s why our school is moving toward creating a college-going culture. But it’s not something that will be done overnight.”

Kalyn is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @kalynbelsha.

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