Terri Tchorzynski is one of those counselors. In January, she was honored by First Lady Michelle Obama as the 2017 School Counselor of the Year for her work at the Calhoun Area Career Center in Battle Creek, Mich. The unique center offers Calhoun County high school juniors and seniors Career and Technical Education (CTE) in 18 concentrations, ranging from nursing to teaching to automotive service technology. Students attend high school for half the day and then go to the career center for the second half, allowing them to graduate with professional certifications as well as diplomas.
During her seven years as a counselor, Tchorzynski has created a college readiness initiative, guided students through CTE programs and onto early college pathways, and held the hands of kids struggling with mental health issues. During the White House ceremony, Obama read testimony from one of Tchorzynski’s students who called her “my lifesaver.”
Here’s how Tchorzynski sees her evolving role in a changing post-secondary landscape.
When colleges look at student applications, they’re no longer satisfied with honor students who have perfect GPAs or athletes who excel at every sport, Tchorzynski told The 74. Colleges want balance and real-world work experience — internships and community service as well as advanced classes on students’ transcripts.
“I think now, with the competition and the opportunities that are out there, students are in a position where they have to really go above and beyond what their traditional high schools offer to make themselves stand out a little bit more,” she said.
Tchorzynski encourages her students to get a head start on job shadowing or work placements in their field of interest well ahead of college application time.
The divide between high school and college is blurring, Tchorzynski said, as high schoolers take more advanced and dual-enrollment classes, earning credits and even degrees before they graduate from 12th grade.
“I think that even changes the face of colleges, especially community colleges, because a lot of their students now are high school students,” she said. “It just changes the face of education, from the high school and the college level.”
This spring, the career center is introducing an early/middle college program that lets students postpone graduation by a year so they can take classes at the local community college, paid for by the district. They will graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. Tchorzynski didn’t think students would want to stay in high school for a fifth year, but 20 students in the welding program have already signed up. The career center plans to add graphic arts and communications next.
At the beginning of the school year, Tchorzynski and her team collect data on students’ college readiness, social-emotional well-being, behavior and academics. Then they plan programs around the feedback: One year, they created a self-esteem workshop for female students who reported body-image and confidence issues.
Several times during the year, the counselors do follow-up data checks to gauge the programs’ effectiveness. “The needs of your students change all the time, so we can’t assume a certain grade needs something without asking them,” she said.
For example, one problem that many students face but schools fail to track is Summer Melt — graduating seniors who commit to attend college but change their minds the summer before freshman year. Tchorzynski tracked the trend and found the numbers startling: At the beginning of senior year, more than 80 percent of her students planned to attend college. But by the next fall, only 54 percent did.
Armed with data, Tchorzynski investigated the causes: not enough help filling out financial forms, lack of transportation and limited support at home. So her team adapted their approach to guide seniors through the steps after college acceptance and connect them with resources at their new schools so they won’t feel alone in the fall.
Every counselor knows the tricky juggling act of preparing students for post-secondary plans, scheduling their classes and serving their mental health needs. Tchorzynski said this last part is increasing in demand. “When you think about the mental health of students — I think anxiety, depression — those are higher now than ever before,” she said.
Part of it, she said, is pressure from colleges to take tougher classes at younger ages. But she has also seen an increase in homelessness among the teens she serves.
“If I were to identify the biggest social-emotional barrier that I work with, with my students, on a daily basis, it’s probably just the student that’s jumping from couch to couch or maybe not coming from a stable home environment,” she said. “When they’re in tough situations like this, they have a hard time controlling themselves or handling themselves in the classroom.”
One growing trend for schools is community partnerships that provide job shadowing, internships and work placements for students. For every CTE program, Tchorzynski has an advisory counsel of business and industry partners who meet twice a year to discuss new technologies and the needs of their workforce.
“If I’m a community business owner and I want to grow my business and develop my business, I should partner with my local educational institution,” she said, “because then I can tell them what I’m looking for.”
There is an added benefit for the mental health side of Tchorzynski’s job: She consults with an advisory council of licensed professionals, therapists and counselors to discuss what her students need and where she can refer them, if necessary.
Though CTE puts students on a clear career path, Tchorzynski still hears negativity from parents when the topic comes up. It’s a stigma left over from an older perception of vocational programs — that their students can’t handle college or don’t know what they’re doing with their life. But, she said, that’s not true anymore.
“We have students in our building who are going to go on and get their doctor’s and master’s, and we have students in our building that are just going to get a certification, and they’re going to be very successful with that because that’s more appropriate for them,” she said.
And as more colleges demand diverse work experiences among their applicants, the need for CTE will only grow.