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Managing Students and Staff in Uncertain Times: Leadership Lessons From Academic Success Program

Monday, April 27, 2020  
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By Sara Urquidez, Executive Director, Academic Success Program

Like most NCAN members, the first two weeks of March for me were dominated by COVID-19 planning meetings. Contingency plans morphed into action plans. Hour by hour, as soon as a plan was developed, something would change and everything would need to be reworked.

Fortunately, our staff and students were on spring break during the most intense time of transition planning. This, at the very least, provided me the space and time to come up with an initial plan and provide some semblance of stability to our staff, schools, and students upon return.

Not everything has gone according to plan.

As someone who expects to be highly effective in everything, I’ve learned to “get to good” with the fact that I’m doing the most I can with resources I have while also attempting to maintain relative balance between wellness and work. (Balance is a myth, but that’s another article for another day.) Whether that is cooking a meal with family, soaking up vitamin D for a few minutes a day, or maintaining an exercise routine, taking care of ourselves has to be an equal priority if we are going to do this work well.

Now is a great time to give up our preoccupation with things we cannot control and focus our energy on the things that we have a direct sphere of influence over.

Level Setting Expectations and Adjusting Goals

Even before staff returned from spring break, I knew that we would need to redefine what our metrics for success would look like this year. Due to a district mandate, we spend a lot of time at the end of the year chasing “input” numbers in pursuit of the mythical 100% on Promise Pledges, SAT/ACT testing, college applications, and in some cases, FAFSA/TASFA completion. Our numbers for the class of 2020 are already high, and we would need to turn our attention to ensuring that our students who have completed these processes are able to finish the next steps for college enrollment.

While we always have been aware of the technology challenges that our students face, these challenges would be magnified in the virtual realm.

It is estimated that over 40% of families in our school district do not have internet at home. While our schools did everything possible to mitigate the technology gap, it did not change the fundamental challenge of how we would be able to work with 3,000+ high school seniors remotely to get through some of the most challenging parts of the college and financial aid processes: financial aid verification and college enrollment.

I challenged my staff to start with students who had affordable four-year options and schools with May 1 decision deadlines. Internally, we know which colleges those should be, and we could do specific outreach to those students and help them pull together those financial aid award letters for comparison. In order to help with specific questions that we might not be equipped to answer, I reached out to admissions offices and invited them to help. Rather than providing traditional information sessions, these university-specific sessions would function as a hybrid Q&A and a drop-in office hour for help on verification, enrollment, and housing. The more students we could settle early on, the more time we would have for the difficult cases. By working with such specificity in mind, we would be able to prioritize what needs to happen from week to week.

Create Stability and Consistency, But Embrace Fluidity and Flexibility

In this new era, we have a staff meeting every morning. I wanted to find a way to streamline our work so that individual staff members were not all trying to recreate the wheel on their own. For me, these morning meetings serve two main purposes. First, it lets me disseminate information in a purposeful manner. Second, and more importantly (to me), it lets me see and hear from everyone on my team to ensure that they are doing OK. If I’m concerned about someone’s well-being, I can follow up individually and expediently to find out what is going on and if we need to make adjustments to what they are doing.

When my staff returned from spring break, I asked them to be flexible and to get comfortable with fluidity. What I told them today might change tomorrow. It wouldn’t be intentional, and it wouldn’t be out of malice. It would be out of necessity. We would be building the plane while it was already flying, and not only would be not get everything right on the first try, but also, we would likely fail as we tried to figure out the best way to approach our work together. Our daily staff meeting is the best way to approach this. We can talk about what is working with students, troubleshoot challenges, and work toward solutions together.

I keep the meeting at the same time every day so that advisers can plan their daily schedules around it. This consistency also means that I’m never wrestling with schedules if I get new information or directives from our school districts. Even if it’s a relatively quick check-in and we don’t have much to discuss, it is important to me personally to hear from my team on a daily basis.

Focus on Community

While my initial plan centered around individual student and family appointments and action-specific webinars like financial aid verification, award letter comparison and making a college choice, it did not account for the community that our students would be missing. Our staff quickly realized that we needed to provide space for students to be with one another as much as we needed to help them with these next steps.

By hosting campus-specific open office hours, we have been able to start recapturing a bit of that community. Some advisers hold their office hours over lunchtime, which helps everyone feel a little bit more like they did when they were on campus and would have lunch together and talk, laugh, and joke with each other.

One unexpected benefit is that we’ve been able to embrace and use our alumni more. Whether we invite them to participate on college-specific Zoom sessions alongside admissions officers or host alumni panels about leaving Texas, our former students are integral to helping our current high school students visualize the next steps of their educational journey. These unfiltered discussions are providing space for students to be vulnerable, connecting them with other students, and providing a sense of community that is helping them become more comfortable making a decision.

While tasks like verification still require a lot of one-on-one attention, make sure that you are providing space for students to be together outside of Zoom School. Remember the not-always-college-related interactions that would happen in your office? Yep, the kids miss those, too.

Embrace What Is Good and Practice Gratitude

At the beginning of each staff meeting, I ask our staff to share how they are doing, how they are taking care of themselves, and/or something good. At the end of each meeting, I ask them to share what they are grateful for. Both of these exercises take time. And, both of these exercises are hard.

I would argue that they are the most important things we do each day.

The truth is, virtual college counseling, especially for a population that is working two or three jobs to help their family pay bills (along with technology and connectivity challenges), is hard. There is not a magic bullet for student and family communication. What works for one school will not work for another. What works one week might stop working the next. The college and financial aid process, which was already incredibly challenging for low-income students, is even more difficult when you cannot sit next to a student and work through the frustrations together.

But, we have a lot of wins. Students show up for appointments. They come to webinars. Maybe their optimism and excitement are more tempered than usual. But, they are still focused on their future. We can’t lose sight of those wins and we can’t keep them to ourselves.

The world is starving for good news. You cannot overcommunicate good news right now. High school seniors remind me of all that is good in the world. Don’t believe me? Go back and read the recommendation letters you wrote for your students in the fall. With a little bit more (virtual) help, a lot of grace (for all of us), and even more patience (again, for all of us), these kids are going to change the world.

Sara Urquidez is the executive director of Academic Success Program (ASP), an NCAN member organization in Dallas, Texas, that provides professional comprehensive college counseling to high school students in grades 9-12. Advisers are traditionally housed on a high school campus and have a district mandate to assist 100% of high school seniors with every step of the college process. As of spring 2019, there were more than 5,300 ASP Scholars enrolled in colleges and universities across the U.S. and abroad.

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