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Ethical Behavior and High School Reform
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Thursday September 01, 2005
by: Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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There is an urgency in high school reform. All educators and especially school counselors are needed to exercise accountability measures to close the achievement gap and to support all students, regardless of race, to access and be successful in higher level academics. A serious difference exists in the success rates for students of color graduating from high school and accessing higher level academics Yet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, by the year 2040 Latinos will be the majority population for school-age students. These serious educational inequities will have an impact on America’s economic strength. No Child Left Behind seeks to legislate educational accountability to close the achievement gap and help secure America’s economic future.

School counselors, who operate from a social justice bent, are critical to the nation’s educational reform initiative. This powerful, high-profile role is being embraced by school counselors who tackle the daunting task of changing attitudes and beliefs about students and their ability to learn. For these counselors the mythical level playing field is now their sparring ground where they tackle institutional and environmental barriers that continue to adversely stratify students’ opportunities. These counselors have embraced a social justice agenda and are, quite frankly, ready to kick dirt in the proverbial eye of inequality.

School counselors working as systemic change agents will have an impact on the achievement gap and help secure their students’ futures. Even for the few counselors who are not driven by a social justice agenda, the understanding that the future of our country hangs in the balance is enough to spur each of us on to support high school reform. Rather than focusing on just one student at a time, the school counselor as advocate also supports one school at a time, ferreting out those barriers that stratify students opportunities. This leader, advocate and systemic change agent is embodied in the following three door openers.

Family Obligations vs. Dreams
Rolanda is a 16-year-old junior who was a dedicated student until recently. When you talk to her about the marked change in her performance, she just shrugs that school no longer has meaning for her. When you point out that it is not too late for her to regain the wonderful resume she was building for admission into almost any state university or post-secondary opportunity, she says it no longer matters, that her parents expect her to take over the family business and that college is not up for discussion. Rolanda says she won’t abandon her duties to her family. Despite her dreams of a college education, she says her family will always come first and that with her father’s failing health, her family needs her more now than ever. What can you do to help her follow her dreams of higher education?

Robert Weiss, a high school counselor at John F. Kennedy High School in New York City knows how to support students who are willing to sacrifice their education for their family obligations. Weiss works daily with students to try to meet family obligations without deferring their dreams and offers these comments from a compilation of cases he has worked with over the years.

As school counselors, we are obligated to help Rolanda recognize her broader options within the expectations of her family. It is a delicate matter demanding the balancing of cultural sensitivity and ethical responsibility. Ethical responsibility is to advocate for Rolanda by allowing her to make an informed choice about her future. The ethical standards for school counselors state that the student has the right to understand the full magnitude and meaning of educational choices and how those choices will affect future opportunities.

To permit Rolanda to simply accept her fate would be wrong. That would amount to giving up on her without any concern for her own development and self-direction. The counselor’s role is critical; an idea or suggestion, a plan or question can alter a young person’s vision of the future. In the case of Rolanda, the meetings that are held with her must accomplish several things. They must: affirm her worth as a student who would be valued by a college, acknowledge her culture and duty to her parents and encourage her to be open to other possibilities that maximize her potential.

An attempt could be made to invite Rolanda’s parents to come for an informational meeting, but if Rolanda refused this idea then the counselor could proceed cautiously with Rolanda, being aware not to exert too much pressure on her. The counselor’s responsibility is to constantly remind her that her parents’ values and beliefs aren’t in question but that her own nascent college aspirations are also valuable and worth exploring. The goal would be to assure Rolanda that there might be practical solutions that satisfy her parents’ expectations as well as her own desire for an education. These solutions might involve choosing a part-time university program close to home or perhaps weekend college classes or some online classes. Literally opening up college catalogs, reading about courses and designing an imaginary schedule of classes would be appropriate. The important point to emphasize for her is that by taking some college classes, she would not be forsaking her parent’s wishes, nor would she be sacrificing her own.

Rolanda needs to see how the choices she makes in the present, to reject college or accept it in a limited way, will affect her in the near future. The counselor helps to make school relevant and points the student down the road or helps draw the map. The rest is up to her.

To advocate on Rolanda’s behalf means to defy knee-jerk responses. Helping her means advocating for and affirming her right to an education, offered with compassion for her struggle and an application of ethical principles. All work toward one end – Rolanda makes her decision in the most informed and respected manner.

Your school encourages students to take the advanced placement (AP) courses and exams if they are likely to score a four or five on the exam (five being the highest score). The district doesn’t focus on the number of students in AP but rather reports only exam results in percentages, perpetuating the practice of having just a few students in AP courses so the percentage of students scoring a four or five will be impressive. Are there any legal or ethical issues involved in hand picking students so the district can continue to have impressive AP results?

Davin Boothe Sr. arrived at his new job at Lake Butler High School and, without much attention, blessed his school’s long-standing practice for admissions into AP classes. The stringent criteria required students to have a 3.0 grade point average, 55-plus on the Verbal PSAT or 550-plus on Verbal SAT and instructor’s approval. That year 36 students were enrolled in AP courses, with 22 of them scoring a three or better on 55 exams, a respectable percentage. Life might have rocked and rolled along without further scrutiny if Darvin Boothe Jr. had not arrived on the doorstep of Lake Brantley High School. You see, Boothe’s son didn’t meet the criteria for admissions into AP courses, but. Boothe knew his son belonged in AP, a fact borne out when Darvin Booth Jr. aced the AP exams. Booth began to look at the admissions criteria through a different lens. He worried about all those other students who also should be given access to higher-level course work but who didn’t have the advantage an advocate. Boothe became their advocate. Steadily the numbers climbed for higher-level academics until last school year an impressive 834 students took 1,916 AP exams scoring three or better on 862 of those exams.

For the last three years, Jim MacGregor, a new school counselor to his high school in central Florida, has pushed for rigor and opportunities for his students. His school’s AP enrollment jumped from 155 to 423. The exam order for his school increased to 394 exams over the 166 exams taken the previous year. MacGregor’s school is 70 percent Hispanic and more than 50 percent free and reduced lunch.

Both Boothe and MacGregor believe rigor for students is by design and not chance. These two advocates have created a systemic change at their high schools. MacGregor exercises relevance and rigor by implementing a career awareness program for every student in the school to help individual students see the interrelationship between post-secondary education and their future economic opportunities. He involves parents in academics by helping them see that their children’s future would be severely handicapped if they did not participate in the rigorous courses that prepare them for post-secondary options. These parents became supporters for changing the academic expectations for the whole student body. Using data and anecdotal information about student success in higher-level academics, MacGregor is able, over time, to successfully change attitudes and beliefs about widening opportunities for higher-level academics.