2 high schools, community college forge new path for postsecondary success
Jennifer Fernandez-Miranda knew she wanted to be an English teacher. But the real question was: How? After all, Fernandez-Miranda hadn’t had anyone in her family take this path. The logistics – not to mention the cost – seemed insurmountable.
“During my senior year at Columbus Junction, I felt very anxious, I knew that I wanted to go to college, but it didn’t seem like a realistic possibility for me,” she said.
Fernandez-Miranda’s dilemma was pretty common at Columbus Junction High School, and educators there were seeing bright students turning away from bright futures. It’s not like the district didn’t have counselors. But they, like pretty much everyone in their profession, have been stretched thin. Career and postsecondary counseling seemed to always take a back seat to more pressing issues.
In a neighboring district, the Louisa-Muscatine Community School District was noticing those same stumbling blocks for their students. That’s when the Louisa-Muscatine Superintendent Mike Van Sickle had an idea: What if there was a school counselor who was solely dedicated to working with students to follow their dreams? And if a small district in Louisa-Muscatine cannot afford another counselor, might the position be shared with another district and, perhaps, a community college?
It was the right idea at the right time. The Columbus school district and Muscatine Community College jumped on board. In short order, the three entities were sharing a college and career counselor – sometimes called transition counselors – through what is known as a 28E agreement, which enables public entities to share positions. The high schools each pay 40 percent of the cost of a counselor, and the community college picks up the remaining 20 percent.
The concept was a solution to an ongoing problem, said Muscatine Community College President Naomi DeWinter.
“We realized there is a gap between what a typical high school counselor is able to do and what the student needs,” she said. “It is through no fault of the counselor: There have been additional duties assigned to counselors, such as mental health issues. There just isn’t enough time to work with each and every student to work out a plan beyond high school.”
The transition counselor teaches a fall class at both high schools – mornings at one, afternoons at the other, four days a week – in which students are engaged in career exploration and counseling.
“Here students delve into finding their dreams and how they can get there,” DeWinter said. “That’s where we start to match interests with college or career training.”
Then, in the spring, the counselor spends one-on-one time with the students, helping them with applying for college loans and applications, as well as attending college fairs and visits.
She also spends one day a week at Muscatine Community College, in which she follows up with students from the two high schools who are attending the institution.
“The fact that she follows up with last year’s seniors is really key to ensuring the students stay on track,” DeWinter said. “Those students have someone they already know they can turn to.”
The transition-counselor concept has grown to include two more high schools – in Wilton and West Liberty – and an additional counselor.
So what does the data show? In the three years since the program’s inception, the trend is good. In completing student loan applications, Columbus went from 61 percent of the student population to 76 percent. In that same time period, Louisa-Muscatine went from 66 percent to 73 percent.
Measuring the percent of students who enrolled into postsecondary education immediately following high school, Columbus’s grew from 51 percent to 55 percent. Louisa-Muscatine saw even a bigger jump, from 60 percent to 66 percent.
DeWinter said she expects other community colleges across the state to replicate this initiative.
“All community colleges are embedded within their communities,” she said. “When you look at our students’ needs, the obstacles surface again and again. Participating in having a transition counselor is a natural extension of what we’re able to do. We know if we reach students as early as possible, we have a better chance of igniting their passions and turning it into something real.”
For Fernandez-Miranda, it’s literally changed her life’s trajectory. She attended Muscatine Community College for two years, at no cost thanks to scholarships and a Pell Grant. Today, she’s at the University of Northern Iowa, her sights keenly set on her dream job of being an English teacher.
“If I did not receive any guidance, I fully believe that I would have just given up on college,” she said. “I felt like college was not a path for me and did not know a whole lot about financial aid or more affordable college options.
“I think my life would be completely different. Instead of being currently enrolled at UNI, I would probably still be living at home helping my mom raise my younger siblings. Instead of expanding my knowledge on subjects I enjoy, I would be working a job I wouldn’t be happy with.
“I’m so very grateful that I was able to receive guidance.”