Developing Effective Programming for High School Students and Families
School counselors can organize events to help students feel comfortable preparing for college while also keeping parents and guardians informed.
Offering college-focused programming at your school is a great way to address the needs of many students and their families. These events can be fairly easy for new counselors to coordinate and are productive and engaging for your community.
I’m part of a counselor team that serves approximately 1,400 students in a large, suburban community. The students’ parents are very supportive and involved with the educational process. We offer grade-level programs to address the needs of our community. Last year, we created a video for students and parents that simplified the college application process. During the pandemic, we added recorded options that we continue to use. This year, each grade level will have a school counselor program manager who will coordinate curriculum and planning for the year.
Hold Events for New and Returning Students and Parents
Freshman orientation: New ninth-grade students are greeted with enthusiasm and receive a tour of the building with a group of students in grades 10–12 before the school year starts. Students participate in icebreaker activities, review their schedule, learn more about the culture of our community, and hear anecdotal stories from current students. On the same day, new 10th- through 12th-grade students are also welcomed by upper-class students.
Ninth-grade parents’ meeting: During the first month of the academic year, we facilitate a ninth-grade informational meeting for parents at 8:00 a.m. This meeting provides parents with an outline for the year and brief overview of the high school experience, including graduation requirements, clubs and activities, the role of the counselor, support services, standardized testing, and an opportunity to ask questions.
Parents can also say a quick hello to their children’s school counselor after the meeting—a personalized approach is always helpful and appreciated. We usually try to offer this meeting before our open-house event to reduce parents’ stress and anxiety about the new environment of high school. Although it’s an early-morning program, usually more than 100 parents attend. If parents can’t attend the in-person event, recording it is also an option.
Welcome-back meet and greet: The 10th-grade year begins with a welcome-back meet and greet for parents and students in our auditorium. For the school counselors, this is their first time meeting the 10th graders and families as they transition from the ninth-grade counselors who worked with them for one year. The overview includes a PowerPoint presentation, and each counselor shares their best advice and suggestions for parents. The agenda includes transcript building, career exploration, graduation requirements, the résumé, getting involved, and tips for a successful year.
Offer Hands-On College Workshops for Students and Parents
College search meetings: In late August, parents and students are invited to attend small group sessions with their school counselor where they receive a timeline for the college search, get application tips, and have the opportunity to ask important questions. This workshop is usually offered from noon to 1:00 p.m.
College application boot camp: In September, shortly after students begin the school year, counselors visit Senior English classes for application boot camp. Students use their Chromebooks for 43 minutes to work on their college applications while counselors are available to answer questions. Counselors share helpful information and also provide suggestions about how to request letters of recommendation from teachers, the application essay, and standardized testing. After the workshops, students can meet with their counselor when they have additional questions.
College workshops with keynote speakers: I realized how overwhelming, confusing, and stressful the college search process could be when my daughter became a junior in high school. After years of working at college and high school campuses and guiding parents and students through the process, it was a very different experience when it was my own daughter. She wasn’t excited about going to visit colleges, and working on her essay and applications essentially became her part-time job.
One of our most popular programs in the late fall is our junior family night. Typically, more than 350 parents and students enthusiastically attend this productive and informative program. The program includes a dynamic keynote speaker and numerous workshops on the college visit, public and private colleges, financial aid, how to navigate the college search process, and the résumé.
You can consider representatives who visit your high school or attend local college fairs. Also, ask for recommendations from other counselors in your network. We have great relationships with college representatives who look forward to attending this evening program each year. The evening provides an opportunity to demystify the application process, share information and a manageable timeline for the process, and discuss standardized testing. Parents walk away with an action plan to assist their child with the college search.
Other programs: You can also coordinate programs that highlight careers, job searches, the gap year, trade schools, and military options. To highlight trades and work opportunities, a colleague at a local school hosts hourlong sessions for students during the day to learn about trades, internships, and jobs. They invite an engaging member of a local plumbers’ union, who provides information about post–high school opportunities. In addition to the previously mentioned programs, we have coordinated career fairs during the day and college fairs in the evening that are very popular.