Woodburn adds counselors to support students and inspire them beyond graduation
Woodburn senior Andrea Aguirre will be the first one in her family to graduate from high school, but that’s not enough. She wants to go to college.
She almost gave up that dream though because her parents don’t make that much money, and she didn’t think she could get any scholarships.
That’s where Woodburn School District College and Career Counselor Mario Garza stepped in.
“Mr. Garza gave me a reality check,” Aguirre said. “He said, ‘You are able to get a couple of scholarships but you have to put in the work.’”
Despite being a high poverty district, Woodburn has a 88.9 percent graduation rate, 12 percentage points above the Oregon average. Woodburn created Garza’s job and beefed up counseling staff to help students focus on goals higher than high school graduation.
“You’re going to have to spend money on the type of staff it takes to build that kind of culture,” said Superintendent Chuck Ransom. “We need our parents, our staff and our kids all to believe that they can do this.”
College and career counseling
Woodburn divided its large high school into four smaller high schools for the 2006-07 school year. A traditional high school counselor is assigned to each high school. Because the counselors work according to schools, rather than grade levels, they get to know students over the four years.
“I am guiding 400 students through high school to graduation and beyond,” said Tony Manetti, counselor for the Woodburn Academy of Art, Science and Technology.
The high school counselors handle the typical academic and behavioral support so Garza can focus on helping students with post-secondary planning.
Woodburn Senior Estefan Cervantes was the first person in his family to speak English, and now he is planning for college. Cervantes says his parents, neither of whom finished high school, try to help him navigate college applications but “they are new to this whole experience.”
Garza has been key to Cervantes’ journey, steering him to scholarship opportunities.
“If I were by myself, all these scholarships would have been more difficult to find,” Cervantes said. He is in the process of applying for a full-ride scholarship to George Fox University to study civil engineering.
Woodburn Academy of International Studies seniors Estefan Cervantes (left) and Jorge Perez will be the first in their families to go to college. They say they have both been accepted to George Fox University, where they hope to study civil engineering. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Garza became Woodburn’s dedicated college and career counselor in 2013. The wall outside his office is covered with college pennants, many brought back by former students. That doesn’t mean he’s just about college. Other career options better fit some students.
“I try to understand what the kids’ goals are and what they need to do it,” he said.
He tends to do group presentations for freshmen and sophomores to remind them that the decisions they make now will have ramifications down the line. He wants students working on graduation throughout their high school career so they can spend more energy in their senior year thinking about what’s next. He works one on one with juniors and seniors, identifying obstacles and helping students process the overwhelming information load.
Garza helps with essays, resumes, transcripts and applications. He uses websites and social media to let students know about opportunities and deadlines. He also rallies and supports the parents. He has evening meetings to explain federal student aid opportunities, and he goes on college visits with families.
“We need to get our parents on board not just with the idea of going to college, but with the knowledge they need to support their kids,” he said.
Garza sees his job as building a culture of achievement in the community to help break the cycle of poverty. He says it’s not enough to go to college if students don’t finish, and he is trying to create the supports that help students persevere in higher education.
“High school graduation is not enough,” he said. “It’s like you’re running a 100-yard dash and you give someone a blue ribbon as they pass 80 yards.”
Many of Woodburn’s students are worried about a lot more than their grades. Most come from low-income households. Many are dealing with additional fears and uncertainties from the current immigration debate. They’ve faced trauma and hardship.
“We’ve recognized the need for nonacademic supports,” said Joe James, director of student services. “If we can take care of those needs, the academics will fall into place.”
The district employs two high school social workers to help the school counselors.
“Kids aren’t going to excel academically if they’re still struggling with issues of hunger and crisis and family problems,” Ransom said.
The Woodburn School Board has supported Ransom’s approach.
“Social workers and the counselors help kids get over bumps so they can still be in school and be successful,” said Linda Reeves, Woodburn School Board chair.
Aguirre credits the support and understanding she has received at school for helping her stay on track when other troubles threatened to derail her education.
“They really know the person you are, the person you’ve become from freshman year to now,” she said.
Aguirre wants to study business at the University of Oregon. Garza helped Aguirre balance her school schedule with other time demands so she could pursue her dreams. He emails her due dates for scholarship applications and checks up on her.
Woodburn Wellness, Business and Sports School senior Andrea Aguirre says teachers and counselors have helped her with more than schoolwork to keep her dream of college alive. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA.)
Academy of International Studies Senior Jorge Perez says his parents are proud he will get a high school diploma, but he wants more.
“Making it through high school is a big achievement,” he said, “but it will be even better if I graduate from college.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA