News: College Access & Success

How JefCoEd Created a Communitywide 'Journey' to Transform Postsecondary Pathways

Wednesday, February 26, 2020  
Posted by: Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation
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In February, NCAN released “The Data That Matter and the Plans That Work: New Districtwide Approaches to Student Success Beyond High School,” a collection of case studies about five school districts and partner organizations participating in the To & Through Advising Challenge. These organizations’ “big ideas” center on changing postsecondary advising by incorporating fit and match in college selection, improving FAFSA completion, reducing summer melt, and using postsecondary outcomes data to inform practice. This post focuses on Jefferson County (Alabama) Schools whose big idea is grounding stakeholder engagement (especially among students) and changes to practice and curriculum within a communitywide communications campaign around changing perceptions of what college is and can be.

Read the full report, additional case studies, and other resources derived from the project here. NCAN would like to thank all of the To & Through Advising Challenge participants and coaches who contributed their insight and time to making this publication possible. NCAN is grateful to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for their support of the To & Through Advising Challenge.

The Big Idea

Ground stakeholder engagement (especially among students) and changes to practice and curriculum within a communitywide communications campaign around changing perceptions of what college is and can be.


Jefferson County is the second-largest school district in Alabama, serving more than 36,000 students annually across 57 schools (including 13 high schools and one International Baccalaureate school). During the 2018-19 academic year, 63% of students were economically disadvantaged, 10% were Hispanic, 48% were White, and 50% were Black or African American. 

“I think that having K-12 school districts think about postsecondary is very new. I don’t know if you can say that about every state, but you can say it about the state of Alabama,” says Whitlee Lusk, public relations supervisor at the Jefferson County Board of Education. “What we’re doing is very cutting-edge.” What they are doing is empowering every stakeholder connected to their schools: students, staff, families, community members, and beyond, to have a role in what they’re calling “the JefCo Journey.”

“There are some mindset shifts that are having to take place at all levels of leadership, from the district down to the schools about the responsibility for a child’s postsecondary experience,” says Lusk. “A lot of people might think, ‘Oh, I just have to take care of them while they’re here, and whatever happens after that is on them.’” Not so, says Lusk, who counters that “everyone has a responsibility from K through 12 to ensure a return on investment on the work.”

The JefCo Journey aims to inspire students through “powerful postsecondary stories from district, school, and community stakeholders,” according to an implementation plan going into effect during the 2019-20 academic year. It serves as an umbrella that includes pairing those stories with a new curriculum that teachers will deliver through schools’ advisory periods and new tools like a mobile app that disseminates knowledge to students directly from the district’s most experienced counselors.

A committee populated by the directors of all of the district’s departments identified advisory periods as an underutilized resource. “We’ve had advisory for six or seven years, but it has never actually been followed through with completely,” explains Cates. “We want to build a vocabulary around postsecondary education that is going to be incorporated into advisory. … Because some students are getting certain things and some aren’t, we are trying to make that experience more equal for our students,” she adds. That process involves a dedicated “advisory makeover committee” that will align advisory’s curriculum across the district rather than allowing schools to take disparate approaches. The committee was “shocked” to find how many resources were already available at the district level just waiting to be put to use in the new advisory effort.

Students from the district are currently working in conjunction with Blackboard to create, brand, and market a student-facing two-way mobile app. The app will be populated in part with videos from counselors with an area of strength on key college and career topics. The district asked counselors to identify their strengths and weaknesses. Where counselors have a strength – for example, how to complete the FAFSA – the app will display it in a how-to video. It gives each student access to a counselor with that strength. “We want to create this app so that no matter where you are in the district or the strengths and weaknesses of your counselors, you will have access to up-to-date and accurate information in the app,” says Cates. “We want it to live there, and we want students to create the app.” Beyond contributing to the campaign, students will get the real-life experience of working on app development, coding, and marketing.

Another positive side effect of the app development is the district’s better understanding of where counselors identified needing more professional development, which should ultimately improve capacity. “Increasing that knowledge for our counselors always has the trickle-down effect of increasing knowledge for students,” says Cates.

Both of these strategies fold into the JefCo Journey branding, which the district is using both in the real world and on social media. The name is the district’s, but Cates and Lusk are firm: “The kids will brand it.” They see it as a way to authentically involve students: “We can sit around the table and talk as adults all day long,” says Lusk, “but for us to get to the core of the work, the best way is to have students work directly with us.”

Steps for Launching the JefCo Journey Campaign:

  1. Create a form for postsecondary story submission.
  2. Set up a schedule and budget for video production for stories; determine when the stories will be shown to personnel.
  3. Launch the district campaign video series.
  4. Facilitate school- and community-level videos in fall 2019; host a JEFCOEDTalks event to highlight powerful postsecondary stories from district, school, and community stakeholders.
  5. Develop the app.
  6. Implement the fully developed and revamped advisory program.

Explore the full report to learn more about how other school districts and partner organizations are using big ideas and National Student Clearinghouse data to improve their students' postsecondary outcomes.