First Person

Pushing Through

It’s true that high school applications are not all there is to eighth grade, but that doesn’t mean that thinking about high school and transitioning isn’t a big part of it either.

As I stayed up late talking with my close friend last night, we realized something huge: In some way, elementary school and middle school are connected to each other. Fifth grade to sixth grade is a smaller jump than sixth grade to eighth grade, and as you get closer to eighth grade, you get closer to realizing that your years of being a younger student are over. Entering high school is all about entering as a much bigger person than the student you were entering middle school.

That’s why it was so rough for me when I didn’t know what high school I was going to. I had to imagine a time that would come very soon even though I didn’t know where to imagine myself. Then I did. I’m going to the Beacon School next year. When I found out, I felt like I could finally breathe. All of the waiting was worth it because I got into the school that I wanted and I felt this huge weight lifted off my shoulders. How unusual, though, that a month ago I thought I was the biggest failure ever but it turns out that I actually got into my first choice.

Ironically or not, Beacon is a school that doesn’t even consider a student’s score on the Specialized High School Admission Test, a test that I felt I had failed. I no longer felt alone and embarrassed. From sixth grade on, I worked hard to achieve good grades so I could get in to the school that I wanted to. Although the SHSAT score was upsetting to me, I realized later on that it had no effect on the school that I really and truly wanted to get into. I took the test in hope that I would just find out early, and that didn’t happen. But it didn’t lower my chances of getting into the school that I actually cared about.

So then the high school part of my year was over, and all I could do was sit back, relax, and see where the rest of the year would take me.

I learned soon enough of the things that fill up your last year of middle school. Turns out it was not just my friend and me who were observing the transition and thinking about how we were really growing up and becoming adults.

Eighth-graders around us are realizing the same thing, but instead of just thinking about it, they are taking action and doing grown up things assuming that it’s okay now that they are graduating middle school.

As they smoke and drink I ask myself why they are rushing to grow up. I am using the rest of my middle school experience to look back at how much I’ve grown and get ready for my high school experience. But other people around me are using the duration of middle school to rush forward. I feel separate from them.

When I am an adult, I want to look back at my childhood and know that I was happy and that I lived it full. These last few months in middle school are filled with the pressure to end childhood on a good note and the sadness knowing that it’s coming to an end. I don’t rush because I know that I don’t have much longer to be kid, but I have the rest of my life to be an adult. 8th grade for me is about savoring the moments that I have left and living them well.

As we come to a time in our lives where we have to leave our childhood behind, people do strange things. For me, I try to hold on to my younger years. Others try to do adult things that show other people that they aren’t babies any more.

I know that I am going to high school next year and I know that I am ready to grow up, but not as fast as others and not in the way that others are. We all want to grow up but we’re choosing different ways to make us feel like we actually are. Others are rushing into the feeling of growing up by doing grown up things, and others are using reflection and remembering the past in order to prepare themselves for the future.

I fall into this second category: For me, eighth grade isn’t as much about looking ahead to high school as it is about looking back at your childhood and pushing yourself forward to a new world of learning. Come to think of it, I’m actually doing both.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.