Counselors Say Transition Counselors Institute is Godsend for Them
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 12, 2002 "We try to use our little bit of power for the benefit of the children," high school guidance director Betty J. Thomas-McBride recently told more than 50 counselors and trainers at the Transition Counselors Institute training session in San Antonio, Texas.
This was Thomas-McBride's second year at the TCI training session, which is sponsored by the Military Child Education Coalition of Harker Heights, Texas. When she returned to Spencer High School, in Columbus, Ga., from last year's training session and conference, she told her counterparts about what she'd learned and emphasized that MCEC programs had top military official endorsement.
Bringing MCEC's efforts to help military-connected children and their families to the forefront resulted in several policy changes at Spencer and surrounding schools that benefited transitioning military-connected students, Thomas-McBride said.
"Our principal was already working to help military-connected students make transitions from one school to another, however, there were no other things in place to help us," she noted. "We're the main high school that children of service members at Fort Benning (Ga.) are scheduled to attend. They're automatically scheduled for our school; however, they can get permission to attend other schools. They can apply for a hardship, which means you live in one school's area but can attend a school in another area."
Before the changes, based on MCEC recommendations, military-connected students had to attend night school when they didn't have enough credits to meet graduation requirements, the counselor pointed out.
"Not in a one-year period, but in a two-year period," she said. "We discussed the issue and decided that we didn't have to send them to night school. We required eight credits, but if they only needed six credits for a full year where they came from, we accepted their six credits as a full year. Why penalize them for two credits if all they needed were six credits where they came from?
"We were able to get that incorporated into our system just by talking to people," Thomas-McBride said. "So now if they come in with six credits, that's all they have to have. But if they start with us, they have to have eight credits."
She said the decision ended grueling days for some of the students. "It's difficult to come to school from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. then go to night school from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. and then start all over again the next day," she said.
Calling the institute and MCEC wonderful things, Thomas-McBride said, "what's sweet about it is that the system embraced the recommendations and sent out a course-requirements-for-graduation document endorsing it. All counselors go by the document when we evaluate a four-year plan for every student. It shows that if a student wasn't here to earn eight credits and he earned six or seven in another school system, that's his graduation requirement."
Jimmi Graham, another counselor at Spencer, said, "I think that bringing counselors, administrators and advocates of children together is a great idea. To be able to focus on the transitioning issues that the students and parents have has actually helped us in our school system. With the sharing I've heard inside the meeting it sounds like a lot of other people have been helped by that sharing also."
This was also Felicia Van Heertum's second MCEC conference and transition counselors training conclave. Noting that last year was her first experience working with military children and their emotional needs, she said it was a great learning experience for her.
"It helps me learn how to really help the parents be advocates for their children," said Heertum, a counselor at Antilles High School in Puerto Rico, which serves many students at Fort Buchanan. "We had parents come in, and Mary Keller (MCEC's executive director) came to Puerto Rico to conduct training as to how parents can prepare their own child's portfolio."
As an example, Heertum said a student who was going into her senior year transferred to Antilles from a school in Oklahoma. The Oklahoma school required 24 credits for graduation, but she needed 26 at Antilles.
A former special education coordinator for disabled students, Heertum said, "The parent called me and asked, what can I do? Well, because I'd just been to the MCEC conference, I realized that we could help. We wanted to make sure the child graduated on time without being penalized. It was very important for the parent that that student not have to attend classes with younger students, like sophomores. So we had the father and student meet with the counselor and they worked out activities that she could do so she could graduate with her peers.
"That was a great experience," she added. "All states require different graduation requirements and we shouldn't penalize students because their fathers transferred to Puerto Rico."
Families have to be advocates for their children because that's the best way to get things done. "If teachers don't communicate with the parents, the parents should be the advocates and tell the teachers what they need from them," Heertum said. "That's because one teacher may be involved with 100 students and doesn't have time to contact all the parents."
DeAnn Howard of Mountain Home Junior High School at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, said attending MCEC conferences helps her to help students at her school. "Just the awareness of what military families go through is helpful," she said. "We try to make transition easier and getting ideas from the other counselors, which we incorporated in our school. That really helps.
"It's contagious to be able to share our ideas. It's energizing to meet together and realize what we're doing in education," Howard said. "We've also shared some of these ideas with our district counseling staff and have met with the district superintendent and high school principal."
Mary Rue started attending MCEC conferences before the institute was formed three years ago. "My husband is retired Air Force, so I'm familiar with the transitioning problem," Rue said. "The networking is very important. When we can't find the history we need for students, I've been able to go to people I've met here, e-mail them, and get credits I need and find out what the description of a course is in a timely manner. It helps the children get situated so they feel better about the school."
Rue is a counselor at Virginia Stacey High School on Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, which runs junior high through high school with about 300 military-connected students.
Counselors are always busy because up to 60 percent of the student body turns over every year, Rue noted. Stacey's a small school, so some students can't get all the courses they want. Some may lose credit because courses like algebra may run two years where they were but only one year at Stacey.
Rue remembers the problems when she and her husband, retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Wesley Rue, came home from Germany. "We went to Germany when my younger daughter was in the third grade and my older daughter was in the ninth grade," she said. "We came back and she was one of those students who had to leave during her senior year. So we had to figure out whether to buy a class ring from Germany or wait until we got to the place she was going to graduate from."
Working in a school district where more than 40 percent of the students are children of active duty and retired military personnel or their parents work on military installations, Marguerite Mitchell said the Transition Counselors Institute and Military Child Education coalition are godsends.
"This institute has made me aware firsthand of how important this is," said Mitchell, wife of James Mitchell, deputy chairman of the MCEC board of directors. "Also, some of the things I've been able to take back to my district are orientation programs. We know that's a real big issue.
"We have a three-day orientation program for new students each year. We also have an orientation program for upper classmen at the beginning of the year to introduce them to the high school. We pair them up with buddies to assist them in their classes and in the cafeteria so they're not sitting all alone. "
The main thing transitioning children want to do is to make friends, said Mitchell, a counselor at Robert E. Fitch Senior High School in Groton, Conn. "They want friends, peers, to be accepted and feel like they're part of the community," she said. "So the sooner we can get them acclimated to the school and connect them with kids with like issues or like interests, the better the transition for them will be."
Before the institute was created, "we tried to do it, but we didn't focus on it as much and didn't do a good job," Mitchell said. "So you want to improve on what you're doing. Periodically, we host a breakfast prepared by the cafeteria for incoming new students and the principal comes to welcome them to the school. Meeting the principal makes them feel good and feel like they're welcome and he wants them to be there."
She said the staff sees the effect transitioning and mobility can have on children. "This institute is definitely important in terms of having high school guidance counselors network about concerns involved with transitioning high school kids," she said. "They're looking at moving beyond high school into the real world and if we don't get them ready for that, we're doing a disservice to those kids.
"So this institute has made tremendous strides in trying to get us guidance counselors to understand the special needs of these kids," Mitchell said. "And the particular needs of all kids who are transitioning because we also have kids whose parents are not military- connected who also are mobile."