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School counselors build pathways to higher ed for AZ students

Two Arizona high school students at the 2019 Access ASU and Hispanic Scholarship Fund conference

Students do an activity at the Access ASU and Hispanic Scholarship Fund conference.

March 01, 2020

After spending 10 years in the classroom as a middle school writing teacher, Adriana Toles decided she needed to support her students in a different way. She knew firsthand how challenging it could be when you’re a first-generation high school graduate or first-generation immigrant. She decided that transitioning to being a school counselor would allow her to support her students in a different but invaluable way.

“Being in the classroom opened my eyes to just how much our kids are struggling with, outside of our four walls. And because they struggle so much in their daily lives, it is difficult to focus in the classroom,” Toles said. “Watching hundreds of students silently and overtly struggle, internally, I knew that my heart and my passion was directing me to do more, to be more for my students.”

Toles, who earned her bachelor’s degree in education from ASU in 2008, is now a counselor for first-year students at Cesar Chavez High School in Phoenix. She joined the ranks of professionals who serve a staggering number of students in Arizona. A study from the American School Counselor Association found that Arizona has the highest counselor-to-student ratio in the nation: 905 to 1 (the national average is 482 to 1, and the recommended ratio is 250 to 1). 

School counselors are helping students not only navigate successfully to graduation from their secondary education but opening up access to higher education at the same time. That’s why ASU joined the American School Counselor Association in celebrating counselors in the month of February for all they do to help students plan for higher education.

Counselors are some of the best advocates for ASU’s work to build pathways to postsecondary education, said Erin Chastain, director of school partnerships for Access ASU. Counselors have been the No. 1 champions for helping students, especially underrepresented students, plan for what comes after graduation.

“They have a lot on their plate serving their students, and we want to celebrate the work that they’re doing giving their students access to information about different postsecondary options,” she said. 

“Counselors are such a vital part to student success during and especially after high school. We know they’ve got large student caseloads, but counselors continue to go above and beyond to support students,” Chastain said. “We couldn’t do our work in the schools without them.”

Thanks to counselors, Access ASU can better connect with schools to offer campus tours, present about college readiness and me3 career planning and more. Executive coordinators from ASU work especially closely with campus professionals from partner school districts Phoenix Union School District, Tempe Union School District, Scottsdale Unified School District, Mesa Public Schools, Chandler Unified School District, Tolleson Union High School District, Glendale Union High School District and Peoria Unified School District.

Rogelio Ruiz is an executive coordinator who connects Access ASU resources to Tolleson Union and Phoenix Union, so he sees the impact of counselors such as Toles every day. One of the most amazing things he’s seen counselors do is carve out an opportunity for English-language learner students at Sierra Linda High School to experience a college readiness presentation within their tight schedules.

“I think it is important to celebrate our counselors for the hard work they do at our schools. Counselors wear many hats, and to many students they are their No. 1 cheerleaders when no one believes in them,” Ruiz said.

Counselors and Access ASU’s executive coordinators collaborate on work that bolsters Free Application for Federal Student Aid completion, career readiness, financial aid resources, admissions resources, standardized test prep and more.

Executive Coordinator Maria Mata cited Maryvale High School Counselor Allison Williams — well known for presenting application drives, ACT boot camps, college fairs and more  as one of the many exemplary counselors making a difference in the lives of Arizona students.

“She set the foundation of being energetic and engaged at the college fair for all students and staff in attendance. Allison has a genuine heart and passion for higher education. Phoenix Union is lucky to have her,” Mata said.

Williams is in her third year at Maryvale, but she’s been working as a teacher or counselor in the district for 21 years. For her, breaking the cycle of poverty is at the forefront of her work to help students access education. 

“Many of our students are the first in their family to graduate high school let alone attend college,” she said. 

Williams has found that many of her students question whether they belong in college, but she said that ASU resources help combat that “imposter syndrome.”

“The answer we are starting to hear more and more is, yes, I can, I belong here,” she said. “With education, our community becomes empowered to make positive changes and provides more opportunity for future generations to come.”

Cesar Chavez counselor Toles said that she’s thankful that Access resources have helped her students fill in the gaps and allowed them to tap into every resource available.  

“Thankfully, Access has been just what my kids not only need but deserve,” Toles said. “And that is the chance to dream bigger, the ability to know that they can surpass their wildest dreams and that they are not alone in their efforts. That they have the support of their family, the support of their school family, and the support of their community to rally behind them and push them to the finish line.” 

While ASU formally celebrates National School Counseling Week annually in the month of February with events at Access ASU partner schools, counselors deserve appreciation year-round for their crucial work, said ASU Associate Vice President for Outreach Sylvia Symonds.

“ASU is part of a coalition of community partners with ambitious goals for changing the educational and economic landscape of Arizona, and school counselors are on the front lines of implementing our statewide goals,” she said. “They inspire students to pursue college but they also give them the resources, information and skills to make college going possible.”

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