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To Split or not to Split?

That has been the question echoing in international schools—in particular in Asia—as they struggle to define a model of high school counseling that best serves their students.
By Shaun McElroy
To Split or not to Split?

Over the past year, International School of Bangkok, Singapore American School, and Shanghai American School have all begun the process of separating out roles so that students will have separate social-emotional counselors, called School Counselors, and specialized College Counselors. Finding qualified counselors who can effectively service both the social-emotional needs of students and understand the nuances in higher education advising proves difficult.
At a typical recruitment fair the jobs for high school counselors outnumber the qualified candidates. Many schools have hired candidates with college admissions backgrounds for jobs that entail a broader spectrum of skills. Other schools have hired professional counselors or social workers and aimed to train them in college counseling on the job.
Neither are particularly satisfying solutions to the challenge at hand. International Association for College Admission Counseling’s most recent survey suggests roughly 35 percent of schools have a specialized position for college/university counseling. In smaller schools, this position is often combined with a teaching assignment. For larger schools, the option exists to make an informed choice. Each scenario has advantages and disadvantages. At the CIS-EARCOS Conference on College Admissions in Bangkok we identified several of them:
Some Advantages:
• Having specialized college counselors allows for greater focus on the job, as well as more time to build strong relations with college admission officers and explore post-secondary options. Every year, counselors on my team report turning down invitations to join College Visitation programs, as they cannot afford time out of the office. Now, this becomes legitimately part of our job, as does attending such conferences as NACAC or CIS.
• Separating out the roles allows for a greater emphasis on privacy. Many students worry that their college counselor will share with prospective universities sensitive issues that have emerged from the social-emotional counseling experience. While we can emphasize that the report we provide for universities focuses on the students’ academic development and community contribution, we still find students reluctant to seek us out in times of need. Since we divided the counseling roles, our School Counselors report that students seem more willing to let them in. They have drawn clear lines with the students and with us about what will and will not be shared.
• Trained School Counselors can focus on developing programs to meet the social and emotional needs of their clientele without the pressures of college admission deadlines looming.
Potential disadvantages:
• How will the College Counselor get to know the student? In the traditional independent school model, college counseling begins in the second semester of Grade 11. Concerned about our ability to build a meaningful relationship given the limited contact time, we designed our program to begin over a full year earlier, in Grade 10. This way we give ourselves space to build trust over time.
• Course selection should be coordinated. As in many schools, our Grade 10 students will have plethora of choices as they enter Grade 11. Many of these have implications with respect to college admissions. College Counselors will work closely with the School Counselors in defining priorities in course selection. This helps with the plan to begin work on college advising in Grade 10, a welcome move by our community.
Some veteran counselors worry about the trade off of specializing diminishing their connection with students.
“Understanding the evolution of the student throughout the high school years makes a stronger support network,” explained one counselor, adding that it “specifically produces richer counselor letters of recommendation.”
Other counselors lamented that specialization would mean a narrower focus in their own work experience. “Variety is the spice of life!” exclaimed another veteran counselor. “Day-to-day variety keeps counselors from getting burned out.” Moreover, she worried that the loss of the full service model would mean students would be “more prone to compartmentalize social/emotional and college issues,” further explaining, “My weekly work with student sleep, happiness, stress, and motivation impacts the college process. A full-service model would lose that aspect.”
When asked what model they would prefer, over 60 percent indicated they hoped their next job would primarily focus on College Counseling, suggesting that the split model is a welcome one. However, only a few expressed interest in a job that focused exclusively on social and emotional needs. For many veteran overseas counselors, we value the connections and broader view we can develop when working with students around college advising. As more offices split, we could see the demand for qualified School Counselors rise even more.
Two key elements are essential to the success of the split model:
• Clear delineation of roles and responsibilities between School and College Counselors
• Open and regular communication to support the students’ well-being and long-term goals.
Shaun McElroy is a counselor at Shanghai American School.

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02/07/2017 - Robert K
Thanks for presenting the pros and cons for such a decision. After spending 10 years in independent US schools, I was accustomed to the split and quite enjoyed it always saying that one role did not necessarily preclude the other completely depending on one's personality and desire to get to know students. I will have to admit, I did not have as much time to focus on social emotional needs/advisory/pastoral care if I am to greet and meet over 300 representatives and run a stellar college counseling program and vice versa. I do enjoy the specialist versus generalist (as I see them), but of course relying on my relationships with my other counseling colleagues working synergetically to best support the student. It is quite challenging to get some of the administrativia aspects of college counseling done if a student has a criss and all other appointments are cancelled that day. I still honor and welcome all perspectives, but I am for the split model myself.



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