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 Broward County (Florida) Public Schools, whose big idea is adding specialized personnel and using peer mentoring to assist school counselors and improve students’ postsecondary outcomes.
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
Add specialized personnel and use peer mentoring to assist school counselors and improve students’ postsecondary outcomes.
Broward County Public Schools is the second largest school system in Florida and the sixth largest in the United States. The district serves nearly 268,000 students across 241 schools (including 32 high schools). During the 2019-20 academic year, 66% of students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch, 52% were White, 40% were Black and 36% were Hispanic.
In Broward County, Florida, school counselors are critical stakeholders delivering college, career, and life readiness (CCLR) supports, and they were (and are) overwhelmed. Broward County has approximately a 500:1 student-to-counselor ratio, but an informal analysis shows that 55% of counselors’ time is spent on “other duties” like testing, 504 accommodations plans, study hall, etc., which makes that ratio effectively about 1,000:1.
To provide additional support, the district created the Broward Advisors for Continuing Education (BRACE) Advisors position, which serves as the support arm for counselors. These adult personnel assist with, for example, clerical supports, fee waivers, and college applications so counselors can focus on mental health and other components of their roles. Because counselors spend so much time completing other duties as assigned, the role of the BRACE Advisor has grown substantially, and that includes for CCLR. A BRACE Advisor in each school is responsible for CCLR-related activities. Some of these schools have as many as 4,800 students.
“In order to meet the demand of the masses, we had to raise an army of people to meet those needs,” says Ralph Aiello, director of school counseling. “When you look around those school campuses, 95% of the people on those campuses are students, [so] we should leverage their strengths and altruism to influence the needs of their peers.” The district recognizes that students tend to listen to each other far more than they listen to adults.
Although there are different mentoring and leadership programs across the district, in light of an existing relationship with PeerForward (an NCAN member), Broward County decided to create a program to focus exclusively on CCLR. Enter the BRACE Cadets. The To & Through Advising Challenge has helped to scale peer mentorship throughout the district by training these peer-mentor cadets on general campaign management and college and career readiness skills. The Cadets, in turn, go back to their schools to lead initiatives that help other students, for example, fill out the FAFSA. They also help co-host parent nights and co-run college fairs.
The district used a Title IV grant to get funding to pay these students. Being a BRACE Cadet is not just a volunteer opportunity; each Cadet receives a $500 personal stipend to get engaged. During the first year of the project, there were 60 Cadets, but during the 2019-20 academic year that figure more than doubled. All 32 traditional high schools in the district have a BRACE Cadet, as do some technical college programs, including some charter schools. Some Cadets returned for a second year and are the veterans (“BRACE Ambassadors”); they get an extra $100 for the leadership role they are taking on. “On one hand, Cadets came about because there was a deficit that needed to be filled,” reflects Aiello. “But it was also already an existing strength for our students.”
The selection process to become a BRACE Cadet in Broward County is extensive. Applicants need to complete project plans, demonstrate their ability to use Naviance, and complete certain performance tasks in order to qualify. They then go through a round of interviews with a district-based coordinator (who is exclusively dedicated to Cadets and a part of the district’s CCLR team). Once selected, Cadets go through a multiday training that covers college and career information, Florida’s Bright Futures Scholarship Program, a FAFSA 101 module, college applications, and more. Cadets then create a project plan through an iterative process. The project plans cover a range of topics. Some focus on college and career readiness, scholarships, Naviance, resume development, and securing internships; some on targeted populations, like postsecondary pathways for students with special needs.
Once their plans are finalized, Cadets return to their schools and collaborate with their school counselor(s) and BRACE Advisors to actually implement that plan. The adults smooth the way in the process. For instance, if Cadets need to access the computer labs, the BRACE Advisor helps with that part of the plan. To communicate with students, Cadets are making ample use of social media. There is an entire group of BRACE Cadets focusing on Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms across the district. Many high schools have their own social media presence as well and personalize content to their school population. Even above and beyond the plan they developed on their own, the Cadet is often the support wing of the BRACE Advisor.
Ralph Aiello has learned a few lessons through this effort. First: “Start small. Find the coalition of the willing who have the same passion and dedication to this type of effort. Set some small goals with measurable outcomes that can demonstrate that, with a little bit of effort, you can make significant gains in order to have that data to show others that this works and they should get involved.” He urges others not to look at this work as an isolated activity, but instead more like a campaign that connects to socioemotional learning, academics, and beyond because “if schools think this is something else they have to do, it’s never going to work. Integrate as much as possible.” He also urges coordinators of this work to listen carefully because “even if you have the vision, it’s good to accept that feedback. Your ideas and vision ultimately have to be implemented by others, and you have to accept that. Listen, learn, adjust, and partner.”
He concludes that getting students involved with this effort has been critical. Aiello and his team “have been beating this drum for a decade now, but as soon as a student or child says the same thing, everyone starts listening. That coalition of the willing should include the students. Their voice amplifies far greater than ours.”
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.