Illinois Must Modernize Support for Students

teacher in a blue shirt helping student wearing a jean jacket with her school work

Advocacy and teaching go hand-in-hand for me. My teaching career has taken me around the world, from Morocco to Chicago, but my commitment to education advocacy has remained with me on my global travels.

One thing that has stuck with me during my time in the Stand for Children Illinois Policy Fellowship is the breadth of experience that fellows brought to the program. My colleagues reflected communities and backgrounds from across Illinois, and these perspectives helped guide our exploration into policy challenges facing students throughout the state. Stand for Children connected our cohort with education leaders, including principals, researchers, and policy crafters, and the conversations we engaged in helped push us to approach complex issues critically and constructively. Regardless of where we all were from, the Fellows banded together and worked to produce ideas to drive high school success.

Dovie and Nicole have already highlighted the recommendations from the first two sections of Stand’s “Stop Illinois Brain Drain” report. As a teacher, one of the sections that really stood out to me was the third, which focused on modernizing the approach for supporting students.

This means tackling some big challenges in order for more students to graduate with a plan and a competitive edge. Investing in resources like counselors and student tracking will often face some hurdles, especially when budgets are tight. Ultimately however, it will return greater dividends in the classroom for Illinois students and teachers.

Currently, school counselors and support systems for students vary greatly by district. If Illinois could improve those support structures and give school counselors the tools they need to effectively do their jobs, it would have a major impact on students and their post-graduation successes.

Before I go much further, it’s worth noting that Illinois recommends a counselor-to-high school student ratio of 1:250, and directs counselors to spend at least 80% of their time on student services. Those are not the most inspiring guidelines to begin with, but the real numbers are more disheartening. On the ground, the counselor-to-student ratio in Illinois high schools is 1:664! This is the sixth-worst in the nation. Perhaps even more startling, 21% of Illinois high schools have no counselors at all, meaning that 850,000 Illinois students don’t have even one counselor at their school.

Looking past the abysmal staffing numbers, we found another problem. Counselors can often end up with a wide range of roles and responsibilities, getting pulled into other decidedly non-counseling jobs, like lunchroom duty and substitute teaching.

This sort of setup flies in the face of research that affirms the value of investing in counselors: studies show that high-poverty schools that meet the recommended ratio of counselors-to-students have higher attendance and graduation rates and fewer disciplinary infractions. It also ignores the reality that adding a separate position to support students in their post-secondary planning – a College and Career Coordinator – would provide more bandwidth to counselors to support students. These kinds of positions advance student outcomes immediately, which is essential if we want Illinois public schools to remain an attractive option for new and current residents.

In order to improve high school education for all Illinois students in this area of modernizing the approach for supporting students, Stand fellows suggested in the Stop Illinois Brain Drain report to:

  • Let school counselors counsel and increase the level of college and career coordinating support for students. Districts should make sure that school counselors can dedicate their time to supporting students. These duties should not compete with being pulled away to handle lunchroom duty or substitute teach. Creating a dedicated College and Career Coordinator would centralize the responsibilities of proactively engaging industry, creating workplace learning experiences, and staying updated on local labor trends.
  • Create Freshman-on-Track Early Warning Systems in high schools, especially those with low graduation rates. Research strongly shows the value of early intervention in keeping students on track to graduation. Counselors should monitor freshmen attendance and offer support for those at risk of falling off track. Freshmen are three-times more likely to graduate from high school if they meet certain on-track indicators related to attendance and not failing certain classes. If counselors keep freshmen on track, they can help them start high school on a strong footing.
  • Create individualized student learning plans that emphasize pathway completion. Guided by their College and Career Coordinator, students should be encouraged to explore careers in middle school and the early stages of high school. Their junior and senior years should be dedicated to pursuing college credit and more advanced career opportunities.
  • Guide students through post-secondary planning by using student, employment, and post-secondary data. Recently launched data would allow counselors and College and Career Coordinators to provide in-depth, personalized advising based on a student’s college and career aspirations and their history of academic achievement. This powerful tool should be expanded to help school leaders boost data-driven decision-making.
  • Be transparent about whether each Illinois high school has a meaningful college and career ready orientation. The Illinois State Report Card is a rich source for educators like me and the public at large, but it still falls short in telling us how schools are doing in providing students with the academic, technical, and professional skills they need to succeed in college and the workplace. ISBE should add a specific College and Career Readiness Indicator to the Report Card. Fortunately, most of the hard work for creating this indicator has already been done, thanks to the state’s new accountability plan required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. It combines several key measures of success for college and career readiness. ISBE should add this indicator to the State Report Card, and it should also list the career and technical education pathways available at each school.

This is a lot of info to digest, but there is a lot more where this summary came from. I encourage you to check out the full Stop Illinois Brain Drain report. And keep your eyes peeled for one more summary like this from another Stand Policy Fellow, to help break down the recommendations of the report’s final section.

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