In most high schools, students are assigned to a school counselor’s roster by last name or grade level. But at U-32 Middle and High School, in Montpelier, Vermont, students get to choose their own counselor. And if it doesn’t work out for the student, they can switch to a different counselor.
When Anna Farber was in tenth grade, she ‘fired’ her school counselor.
At the start of high school, Anna began struggling with stress. “At one point, I had a huge breakdown and [my counselor] wasn’t in the office.” Anna turned to another counselor, Lisa, who was available and already familiar with Anna because she had been her brother’s counselor. “That day, she let me into her office and we talked about what was going on in my brain,” said Anna.
Under the Adopt-a-Counselor model, students select their own school counselor and can “fire” their counselor later if they so choose. This is one of several ways that U-32 fosters student agency and leadership.
The selection process starts in middle school. In seventh and eighth grade, students all share one counselor who then guides them at the end of their eighth grade year to choose their own high school counselor from the four members of the high school counseling team. Almost every student is assigned to their first or second choice, according to Student Services Director Lisa LaPlante.
While the Adopt-a-Counselor model has existed in some form since the school’s founding in 1971, LaPlante has led the counseling department in making the program more intentional over the past 14 years for the 750 students they serve.
Getting to Know You
To make an informed decision about who will support them through high school, students need to know themselves well and assess what they might need in a counselor. At U-32, they do this through Next Step, a quarter-long course in eighth grade co-taught by middle and high school counselors. Throughout the quarter, students engage in self-reflection activities to learn about themselves, life skills, and education and career pathways. As junior Anna Farber describes, “each counselor teaches a few classes so each student gets to know them a bit. They teach about planning for our future, such as dipping our toe into colleges and adult life. We learn about ourselves as people.”
The days of the course that are facilitated by the high school team are opportunities to see each counselor’s personality and strengths; students also get to see how counselors interact with others. One counselor leads students in a personal finance activity where students create a sample budget for their ideal life as an adult; another focuses on conflict resolution.
Each counselor also takes part of one session to sit in a circle with students for “Ask Me Anything.” Students’ questions range from silly getting-to-know-you prompts like “Would you rather be eaten by a tiger or a whale?” to more personal questions about family or life experiences.
The quarter culminates in students sharing personal identity projects, and then it’s time to choose. In a final self-reflection survey, students consider their learning from the course and rank the high school counselors in order of who might be the best fit for them. From there, the counseling team creates their roster.
Of course, COVID-19 threw a wrench in the plan for this year. Due to necessary schedule changes for the school to open for in-person instruction, Next Step isn’t on the schedule for eighth graders this year. Instead, the counseling team is finding time for shorter sessions with the students, and the middle school counselor is using her strong relationships with the students to help the current eighth graders choose their counselor.
Firing your counselor: conflict resolution skills in action
When the Adopt-a-Counselor model is applied, vulnerability is a key tool. Students aren’t locked into the choice they made at the end of eighth grade: they maintain agency in the counseling relationship throughout all of high school. If students decide that a different counselor pairing would better meet their needs, they’re allowed to “fire” their counselor through an informal process that includes an honest conversation about their reasons. “If they want to fire me, they have to have a conversation with me telling me why they wish to fire me, and they have to have a conversation with who they wish to adopt,” said LaPlante.
Firing a counselor isn’t always about a conflict: sometimes a student recognizes that a different counselor might be a better fit for working on college applications or post-graduation planning, for example. The counselors do ask students to stick with the same counselor for a year if possible before making the decision to switch, and in the end switching doesn’t happen often. One of the counselors, Cairsten Keese, recalled that in six years, only two or three students of hers had requested to switch, which she sees as a success metric of the model’s strong relationship-building.
The counselors see the firing process as an opportunity to help students practice communication and conflict resolution skills. Counselor Nate Lovitz explains, “We really try to frame it with them as, ‘we’re not going to be defensive or upset, it’s just good feedback for us so we don’t make a similar mistake or oversight with a student in the future.’ It’s good practice for them in giving constructive feedback.” Student Anna Farber experienced this support when she decided to fire Cairsten and adopt Lisa: “The switch was fairly smooth without any feelings hurt.”
Teamwork makes the dream work
One of the reasons the counseling team believes the Adopt-a-Counselor model is successful is that it aligns with an overall focus on student empowerment at U-32. A core piece of school design at U-32 is the teacher advisory (TA) model, in which every student is connected to a small group of peers with a shared teacher-advisor for all six years. As middle school counselor Jade Walker puts it, this creates “layers of support” for students, ensuring that there are at least two adults developing deep and sustained relationships with each student.
In addition to the TA model, U-32 is also working on implementing restorative justice practices across the school and has shifted to proficiency-based graduation requirements. These elements together mean student voice is prioritized across the whole school, not just in the counseling program.
And one of the keys to the counseling team’s success is their relationships with one another. The team is close, eating lunch together almost every day pre-COVID and taking professional development courses in the summer together. These relationships are essential as the counselors find common ground across their professional differences.
“We hire pretty eclectic,” says LaPlante, “We all bring very different things.” She sees the team’s differences as an asset, allowing students real options and differences in who they’ll choose. While the counselors are aligned on the big things, like a shared commitment to a relationship-focused approach, each member of the team has their own personality and relational style.
Based on these varying styles, each counselor tends to notice patterns within the students who end up choosing them – one often ends up with a caseload of quieter girls, while another has many students from farming families. But the counselors don’t see these as silos to be stuck in. As a team, they are committed to professional growth. “Vulnerability is it,” says counselor Ellen Cooke, who has been at U-32 for almost 30 years. “If we’re not practicing what we want everyone to do in this building, we all should just quit.”
Staying flexible and adaptable
For other schools thinking of trying a similar model, U-32 has some advice. First, stay nimble and willing to adjust. “This continues to morph. We’re always tweaking and building and moving,” says LaPlante. When the school had to adapt to closures and schedule changes during coronavirus, the counseling team stayed nimble, but also saw the fruits of their work. Students showed up to their Zoom sessions and sought out connections.
Ellen Cooke, the most veteran counselor on the team, says that “adults have to do the work” for a program like this to be successful. Cooke recalled a conversation with a former student, fifteen years after graduation. The former student was now the parent of a son at U-32 who had chosen Cooke to be his counselor. She called LaPlante to request a change, still upset over an unresolved conflict with Cooke from when she had been a student. Cooke, taking the school’s commitment to restorative justice practices to heart, reached out to her former student to see if they could resolve the simmering conflict. “I made the repair, fifteen years later,” said Cooke. “That’s a testament to the relationship-building that is the philosophy and fabric of the institution. It’s not something we take lightly at all.”
Finally, student Anna Farber encourages schools to try this out so that students who struggle, like her, can get support. “It is just nice to have someone who knows you, supports you and wants you to succeed as much as you do.”