A Year in the Life: Supporting the Transition to Postsecondary

We are releasing a series of dispatches on the bright spots and challenges of the past year in Somerville Public Schools. We hope this in-depth look at one community can shed light on what students and schools across the state need right now and how communities and policymakers can support them. Previous dispatches have looked at remote learning and community connections.

What comes next after the disruptions of the last year? For students in the class of 2021, what will they do now that high school has come to a close? How can returning students—as well as families, staff, and community partners—prepare mentally, emotionally, and academically for the start of a new school year this fall? How can district leaders think about fundamentally transforming the education system in response to the effects of the pandemic and the inequities that it highlighted and exacerbated?

In the final set of dispatches in our “Year in the Life” series on Somerville Public Schools, we examine these and related questions, aiming to highlight themes that emerged from our conversations with a range of stakeholders. In particular, we zero in on two topics: the transition to postsecondary for graduating students, and preparation for the coming school year.

To write this dispatch, we developed targeted interview and focus group questions for various stakeholders connected to Somerville Public Schools and conducted a series of virtual interviews and focus groups over the course of several weeks. These conversations included a focus group with grade 12 teachers and interviews with a parent, two high school administrators, and two district staff. We also gathered additional background information from a conversation with two community partners working with Somerville students, and we pulled relevant themes and comments from interviews and focus groups with students, staff, and community partners that took place over the past few months.

Read on below for more on Somerville's effort to support the transition to postsecondary or check out our companion piece on preparing for the 2021-22 school year.

Supporting the Transition to Postsecondary
Keeping track of students’ postsecondary plans was a daunting task in the early days of the pandemic last spring. For students applying to college, the college preparation process often culminates in a decision day that lands at the beginning of May of students’ senior year. For the class of 2020 and the counselors assisting them in mapping out their futures, the pandemic disrupted this critical timeline. School closures in March landed right around the time students were receiving decisions on their college applications. As a result, counselors found it hard to learn about students’ college choices. Many in the outgoing class also found themselves rethinking their postsecondary path altogether, with a number of students opting to defer their admission to college for a year rather than start their college journey online for an indefinite period of time. Meanwhile, staff found that few students moving directly into a career were engaged in conversations on postsecondary planning amid the pandemic, making it difficult to understand the post-high school intentions of young people pursuing this path.

As the following class entered their senior year in the fall of 2020, college and career counselors in Somerville Public Schools were better positioned to support students with postsecondary preparation. In Somerville High School, a small college and career counseling team works closely with the larger school counseling team starting in students’ junior year. The core of their work consists of one-on-one conversations with students (as one staff member said, “Some students will go to a workshop, but most need a lot of individual time to understand what they’re confused about”), making it relatively easy to transition to a virtual model during the year. The team of college and career counselors had been using an online calendar interface for students to schedule appointments with the department, and they continued this practice as they worked on setting up virtual appointments with every member of the senior class. In fact, the pandemic forced staff to get more organized with how they tracked student conversations, leading to some process improvements that will persist post-pandemic.

Two weeks before the school year started, the college and career counseling team called every senior in the class to make them aware of their counselors and the resources available. In the online space, it was particularly critical to establish relationships and maintain communications, as counselors couldn’t seek out students during classes. Instead, as one counselor noted, “We exhausted all our options,” using a wide variety of tools to stay in touch, from emails, to texts via the Talking Points app, to conversations in breakout rooms during online classes, to calls to students and their families.

The college and career counseling team also used multiple methods to share information with students and families, aiming to support them at each step of the post-graduation decision-making process. This included making a series of videos on common topics in postsecondary readiness; counselors had discussed this option long before remote learning, but the pandemic provided the spur to action needed to develop this set of reusable online resources. Additionally, each Wednesday, the department hosted workshops that touched on a variety of topics, such as career exploration, essay writing, taking the SATs, recruitment for college athletics, and resume-building, and staff also hosted two or three virtual college visits for seniors each week. For families, the college and career counseling team hosted several evening forums that were well-attended and engaging, in part because families could join from anywhere and rely on the privacy of the Zoom chat feature to ask questions. Financial aid was a particularly popular topic of discussion for the community during these discussions.

While a small college and career counseling team at the high school provided the bulk of these services for students and families, they also relied on collaborations with various partners to reach more students and support their postsecondary plans. Counselors worked with the CTE (career and technical education) staff to connect students with unions and other career preparation resources, if their intended path did not include two- or four-year college. Advisors from the College Advising Corps (CAC) formed an integral part of the college and career readiness team, conducting individual student meetings and putting out useful content. Community partners like uAspire and Enroot worked with Somerville students through a variety of models. Among other services, uAspire offered financial and mental health support to students preparing for higher education, while Enroot provided career exploration opportunities through mentorship, job shadowing, and academic support opportunities.

Of course, teachers also had a large role in the process of preparing students for postsecondary opportunities. Though it faced some challenges (described in greater detail in the dispatch on relationships during remote learning), a new mentorship program at the high school gave each student at least one connection with a teacher who could help address questions and concerns. Teachers shared several suggestions for strengthening this approach in the coming years, including by meeting in small groups to start the year and by initiating a mentorship program in middle school in order to give students a model for building strong relationships earlier. In their academic instruction, meanwhile, teachers faced a balancing act as they sought to prepare students for rigorous, university-level work while recognizing the challenges of learning amid the pandemic and supporting students’ individual needs. Some teachers (and students) worried that they weren’t striking the right balance between offering more leniency with deadlines and maintaining high expectations. They also expressed concern that a year of remote learning may not properly set students up to succeed after high school, even if it offered students more space to process and navigate the abrupt changes happening in their lives.

While school staff worked diligently to build students’ knowledge about pursuing a postsecondary pathway, they could do little through virtual meetings and resources to cultivate interest in college and career planning where students lacked the motivation to engage—especially in the absence of peer discussions of post-high school plans. Without the in-person aspect of schooling, informal ways of building motivation to plan for postsecondary education or careers—like positive peer pressure and discussions about post-high school plans with classmates—were largely unavailable. One parent lamented that had her students “been in school talking to classmates (where are you going, what about the SATs), it would have felt like they had to [go to college].” Online workshops and college visits could do little to virtually plant the seeds of desire to plan for postsecondary success when those did not already exist prior to the pandemic.

Nevertheless, offering a variety of outreach methods paired with consistent, personal communications and accessible virtual meetings and workshops resulted in successful postsecondary connections for many students. In Somerville High School, the percentage of twelfth grade students going on to a four-year college jumped from 45% the previous year to 51% for the class of 2021. This is higher than the average for the past few classes, which had also hovered around 45%. The exact reasons for the uptick in four-year enrollment are unclear, though staff members shared several hypotheses, including an increase in individualized support after new college and career counselors were added in 2019, the elimination of mandatory entrance exams (e.g., the SATs) at many institutions, and the fact that students were ready to move on from the pandemic to the new environment of college.

While a single voice does not represent the perspectives of an entire class, one Somerville High School senior we spoke with highlighted college preparation as a positive experience throughout the pandemic. Having both a college counselor and a school counselor reminding him about next steps and relevant Zoom meetings held by the department was very effective for him. He recalls, “I felt supported throughout the whole process. I was surprised by that, because I didn’t know it would be possible.”

Moving forward:

     -  To the extent possible, build in specific support for college and career readiness by dedicating staff to work with graduating students (for instance, through the College Advising Corps). Have these staff members start the year by contacting all incoming seniors to introduce themselves and set up appointments to talk further.

     -  Host standing virtual events for students and their families on a range of topics related to college and career preparation. Engage students in the process of defining topics of interest, and make available recordings on high-priority topics so students can access them anytime.

     -  Leverage partners to work with students, either during the school day or outside of school time, as mentors and advisors. Community-based organizations can serve as important connectors and conduits for information (such as by hosting workshops on apprenticeships, financial aid, and other topics).

     -  Incorporate opportunities for career exploration starting early (at the elementary or middle school level) to increase student motivation for defining a postsecondary pathway. Ultimately, these are most beneficial when rolled into a more comprehensive individualized learning plan process, where students consider their next steps and how to get there.