NY Times, January 6, 2008……..
The guidance department of Mamaroneck High School, a public school of 1,454 in affluent Westchester County, gets an airy suite on the top floor of what looks like a glass-and-steel Adirondack lodge. The walls are covered with glossy posters of colleges and universities, from the Gothic grandeur of Harvard and Duke to the leafy campuses of Indiana Bloomington, St. Lawrence and Wheaton. A popular tradition is for seniors to autograph the posters of the places they plan to attend. Some of the posters bear half a dozen signatures, scribbled in thick black marker.
With early admissions deadlines fast approaching, nine counselors pored over G.P.A.’s and SAT scores, their doors propped open to a waiting area where three secretaries were mailing out early decision applications.
The day of a reporter’s visit happened to coincide with that of Jason D. Hamilton, the admissions director for Sewanee, the University of the South.
Bob Sweeney darted out of his office to ask his secretary to buzz him when the director arrived. Fifteen minutes later, he checked again. And 15 minutes later. One of Mr. Sweeney’s seniors was applying to Sewanee, a striving campus of 1,500 in Tennessee, and she could not be there to meet with Mr. Hamilton.
So it had fallen to Mr. Sweeney to convey to him the seriousness of her interest in his institution.
With Mr. Hamilton intercepted, Mr. Sweeney went into his pitch: “Good solid student. You want to see her transcript?” Rolling over to his computer, Mr. Sweeney printed it out, showing a 91 average, then pointed to a 78 in American history. “She really struggled in that class,” he said. “The teacher was a tough grader, but she got a 4 or 5 on the A.P. test.”
Mr. Hamilton nodded, volunteering, “Sometimes it’s not about the grade but what you learn, and she really hung in there.”
“And she’s just a great kid,” said Mr. Sweeney. “Sometimes our kids want to go to a larger school, but I’m always a cheerleader for you guys. I’m a fan of smaller communities, and she’d be great there.”
Mr. Hamilton brought up Sewanee’s 25 Rhodes scholars. Looking down at his notepad, he asked about two other students who had expressed interest in Sewanee in the past. “I would hate to keep sending correspondence and materials to them if they’re not interested.” Did Mr. Sweeney know them?
School policy discourages promoting one student over another when several are applying to a college, but in this case, Mr. Sweeney guessed, only one would apply.
He did not know the other two but promised to find out. Business done, he asked Mr. Hamilton to send a Sewanee poster. “We’ll give you a good spot,” he said.
“I’d like that,” Mr. Hamilton replied.
SEWANEE may not be especially selective, but Bob Sweeney’s student had fallen in love with the South, and Mr. Sweeney knows that a few carefully chosen words or a preview of a transcript can make a difference down the road. Today’s guidance counselor is as much advocate as adviser.
From mid-September to Christmas, 127 college admissions officers and alumni, toting armfuls of brochures and applications, passed through Mamaroneck to prospect for students. Daily schedules of college reps posted around the school read like a who’s who in higher education (though no Harvard this fall). Last year, Mamaroneck (SAT mean: 1741) sent 15 students to the Ivy League, including four to Harvard and three to Yale. The single largest group, 31, landed at Westchester Community College. And nearly 300 more attend a cross-section of other colleges.
Mr. Sweeney’s role is to lead those in his care on a four-year hunt for the perfect college, wherever that might be.
Jeffrey Brenzel, dean of admissions at Yale, sums up the guidance counselor’s two critical tasks: “helping students understand the range of colleges to which they are reasonably likely to win acceptance and helping students understand how to present themselves effectively in an application.”
While that seems simple enough, the admissions process has become increasingly complicated, competitive and high stress. In public schools where college is a priority, counselors are called on to hold the hands of parents who agonize over a bewildering variety of deadlines and policies. Should students apply early or regular decision? What classes and activities carry the most weight with admissions offices? How generous is the financial aid? Should essays highlight a personal obstacle overcome or a summer building houses for the poor?
It’s a level of support taken for granted at private secondary schools, where parents paying $30,000 a year keep power counselors on speed-dial and count on their connections to admissions directors.
Christoph Guttentag, Duke’s dean for undergraduate admissions, acknowledges that admissions officers are more likely to know private-school counselors, in part because those counselors make an effort to know them. But he insists their recommendations aren’t given more weight. Two-thirds of Duke’s admittees come from public schools.
Each year, Duke’s 15 admissions officers visit 750 high schools. They are chosen for their test scores, grades and applicant history. This fall, Duke was one of the colleges visiting Mamaroneck’s College Information Center, a research center maintained by parent volunteers (no less than 40 on call) where students and recruiters come together.
The Mamaroneck guidance department used to begin the college scramble with a January meeting for 11th graders and their parents in the school auditorium. Last year, that meeting was moved to mid-November, because so many families were requesting information earlier.
Before this year’s meeting began, the nine counselors braced themselves behind a long table piled high with orange booklets as a noisy crowd swarmed around them. With assembly-line precision, they handed out the 44-page booklet, “The Mamaroneck College Guide,” each inscribed with a student’s name.
“The personalization for us begins tonight,” the guidance director, Nick Kourabas, told the audience. “How many parents have been through this before?”
A third raised their hands.
“Don’t worry,” he told the rest. “As somebody who’s done this many, many times, I know how this process turns out. You’re all going to get into great schools.”
PARENTS have grown so skittish about college advising in public schools that those who can afford it have sought out private counselors. The Independent Educational Consultants Association has grown to 700 members from 315 in 2004, according to Mark Sklarow, the executive director. Members are required to have visited at least 100 campuses and to have three years of counseling experience.
Betsy F. Woolf, a Mamaroneck-based consultant who charges $4,000 to $5,000 per student, has worked with about 50 since 2003, many of them from public schools. By senior year, she is contacting them weekly to remind them about deadlines, to brainstorm ideas for college essays and to review their applications. She tries to prepare them for their interviews by staging mock sessions.
“Parents want someone who can spend a lot more time with their child than the counselor at school, and someone they can call anytime,” says Ms. Woolf, who has fielded calls as early as 8 a.m. and as late as 11 p.m. “They are concerned about the process. They want more attention, and they want one-on-one relationships that they can’t get in their high school because those counselors have a lot on their plates.”
Educators and parents increasingly voice concern about the shortcomings of college counseling in public schools. They view it as another area — like SAT prep or enrichment programs — where students in private schools have an unfair advantage.
Many counselors point to heavy student loads as the culprit. As class size is to teaching, the counselor-student ratio is an indicator of how much individualized attention, or how little, a student is likely to receive. Moreover, counselors say that an expanding roster of duties — managing class schedules, attendance records, anti-bullying programs — eats into their time.
In August, the National Association for College Admission Counseling reported that each public high school counselor handled 311 students on average; counselors spent just 23 percent of their time advising students about college. In contrast, private school counselors spent 56 percent of their time on college, and they had an average of 234 students each. More than half of all private schools employed at least one counselor whose sole responsibility was college counseling; only 10 percent of public schools had such a specialist.
Selective colleges are aware of the differences and try to make allowances. Mr. Guttentag, of Duke, says that when it’s obvious an overburdened counselor doesn’t know a student well, he gives more weight to teacher recommendations. But when the same counselor can write a detailed letter about just one, that means something. “What we’re trying to do is to make sure students who don’t have every advantage get a fair shake,” he says.
Student loads are less of an issue in Westchester County, where each counselor handles 175 to 200 students on average, according to the Westchester Putnam Rockland Counseling Association. But with tighter budgets and growing enrollments, many other suburban schools are struggling to provide intensive one-to-one counseling.
Carmel High School in Putnam County has one counselor for every 310 students, one of the highest ratios in the New York City suburbs. Students receive less individual attention than they should, acknowledges Noel Cabassa, Carmel’s director of guidance. “It’s just the physics of it. There’s no way you can see all the kids all the time with those kinds of numbers.” He would like to hire another counselor but doesn’t have the money.
Kristen Mancini, a Carmel counselor for four years, says she tends to know best the students who “are better self-advocates.” Last year, she wrote more than 50 recommendations, including one for a student who was admitted to Yale.
It was the first time one of her students landed in the Ivy League. “One of the challenges when I first started was accepting that I couldn’t know the students as much as I wanted,” she says. “It is what it is because there’s only so many hours in the day.”
WITH just 37 seniors this year, Mr. Sweeney has ample opportunity to get to know his students. On his desk is a plastic box holding 162 five-by-eight index cards, one for each of them, grouped by grade, ninth graders in front.
He leans over and pulls out a worn card from the back. A senior. He is writing her recommendation that week. In the upper-right corner is a black-and-white photo of a smiling girl that he had cut out of her eighth-grade yearbook four years earlier. It reminds him that he was impressed early on. In her ninth-grade year, he scrawled: “She’s very articulate and well spoken. She’s interested in theater.” He added another line as she found her niche in high school. “She plays field hockey and softball.”
“So many of the things that I write down — that first impression — seem to hold true for as long as I’ve known them,” Mr. Sweeney commented. “It’s important to me that I get to know them. I’m trying to put a quality to a name and a face.”
A quick look at the other cards reveals a random collection of impressions. “California relaxed” (for a senior who had relocated). “Looked me in the eye when he talked to me. Loves baseball.” “Fixes office computers.”
Some cards have details about parents: what they do, whether they commute to Manhattan, whether they are divorced or separated. College attitude is important. For one junior, he noted: “Strong student, but the parents seemed low-key and less anxious, calm.” The cards will be updated with where they go to college, then tucked away in his filing cabinet, where more than 800 cards have been neatly bundled with rubber bands.
With noon approaching, Mr. Sweeney wanders out to the hallway and plants himself by a large sign that says “Please see your counselor.” Ten names are listed in bright green, all students Mr. Sweeney wants to see. Impatiently, he scans the backpack crowd as if angling for salmon swimming upstream.
Five minutes later, the hallway is emptying out. Finally — one egg-salad wrap at his desk later — one of the 10 wanted students happens to walk by and see his name. Mr. Sweeney beckons to Dan Foster, a junior who moved to Mamaroneck in August from Oak Park, Ill.
Mr. Sweeney studies a list of Dan’s classes. How was he doing in A.P. government? How about math? “Do you think we undershot that?”
“A little bit.”
Mr. Sweeney already knew that. Dan’s father had called him to say that Dan not only felt the class was too easy but that colleges might take a negative view if he stayed on a precalculus track.
“I won’t have A.P. calculus,” Dan said.
Mr. Sweeney reassured him.
“Take advantage of the easy math class, because you’ve got a full plate here.”
Dan still wanted a harder class, though, so Mr. Sweeney suggested an alternative: an honors math class that was below the A.P. track. Dan jumped on it, because he was trying to compensate for weaker grades he had received in ninth grade.
“I don’t want you going up the creek without a paddle,” Mr. Sweeney warned. “It’s not the worst thing to graduate with precalculus and not calculus. There’s a balance of being challenged and being comfortable.”
Janet Smith, a Mamaroneck mother of three, says students need a counselor to help them sift through all the choices. Mr. Sweeney helped send her oldest son, now 22, to St. Lawrence University and advised her middle son to apply early to Colgate; if he waited until regular admissions, Mr. Sweeney told him, he would be competing against stronger students who had failed to get into more selective colleges. The strategy worked.
Hearing rumblings that her youngest, entering ninth grade, might be assigned to a new counselor to balance the student loads, Ms. Smith says, she “loudly and clearly” requested Mr. Sweeney.
Students are randomly assigned to counselors here, and parents compare notes, just as they do on nannies and tutors. “His laid-back attitude is key, because a lot of parents in this community get really stressed out and kids are tutored like crazy for the SATs,” she says.
AT a mid-November program for the 600-member Westchester Putnam Rockland Counseling Association, the evening’s topic was “Dealing With Difficult Parents.” The illustrated flier for the program showed an umpire wearing a helmet and chest protector and holding apart two men with fists clenched. More than 140 counselors had signed up.
The counselors, coming straight from their schools, began filling the linen-draped tables in a private upstairs room at Graziella’s, an Italian restaurant in White Plains. A boisterous group from Yonkers took over a table. Several others scooped up blue folders with information about Polytechnic University, a private engineering college in Brooklyn with a Westchester program. Polytechnic paid $3,000 to sponsor the event, which included a reception with hot food and free drinks.
Mr. Sweeney, the association’s president, welcomed the crowd.
“Obviously, the topic of difficult parents is a draw,” he said, earning loud, appreciative laughter. “I have to tell you that last week we had a program for parents to deal with difficult counselors, and no one showed up.”
The guest speaker, a school psychologist, played a recording of an irate father threatening to go to the superintendent because he believed the psychologist had given him the “brush-off.” As several people rolled their eyes at the exchange, the psychologist pointed out that parents these days have an increasing sense of entitlement. Moreover, she said, counselors can be stuck with them for years if there are younger siblings.
“No matter how good you are, some parents will drive you crazy,” she said.
For the next hour, the psychologist outlined coping strategies for a catalog of difficult parents — deniers or blamers, nervous or passive-aggressive types — in what sounded at times more like a motivational session than a professional development program.
Driving back to school that night, Mr. Sweeney described the first time a parent yelled at him, two decades ago, when he was barely into his first year as a counselor. It was a mother who had discovered mostly C’s on her son’s first-quarter report card for 10th grade. She told Mr. Sweeney that he should have alerted her to the problem sooner.
“It made me question whether I was doing a good job,” Mr. Sweeney said. “The expectations from parents were greater than I realized. I wondered if they were as angry with their son as they were with me.”
Since then, Mr. Sweeney acknowledges, he has been at the receiving end of other tirades. In a pressure-cooker environment in which students are judged every day with grades and numbers, Mr. Sweeney says, parents hold teachers and counselors — even the school system — responsible for a child’s failure. “Both kids and parents feel there is no margin for error, and even one bad grade can be seen as a crisis,” he says. By his count, 10 students have switched to another counselor because the students, or parents, felt that he was not responding to their concerns.
Mr. Sweeney has to worry about more than just parents and students. Georgetown once complained after a student violated its early admissions policy (which asks students not to apply early to another college that requires them to attend if accepted). How could this happen? Not even Mr. Sweeney had it straight. Now he does. “You need a chart the size of my wall to keep track of all the variations.”
“Our credibility is at stake,” he says. “It’s certainly a poor reflection on us if our students start to game the system.”
Mr. Sweeney rarely calls a college to argue about a rejection, though students and parents will ask him to intercede. But he does pick up the phone when one of his students is placed on hold in the nebulous world of waiting lists.
It’s too soon for that, but some results are in. Ten of Mr. Sweeney’s 37 seniors applied early to colleges including Columbia, Middlebury, Wesleyan, Colgate and Gettysburg. Nine were accepted.
“I don’t believe the job of a counselor easily lends itself to a curriculum, a formula or even quantifiable data that determines success or failure,” he says. “Even the list of college acceptances is not a true barometer. Ultimately, it comes down to: ‘How well did Mr. Sweeney know me? Care about me? Listen to me? Advise me? And was willing to help me when I needed him?’ ”
Winnie Hu is an education reporter for The Times.