By Bart Gummere, Associate Head of School for College Counseling and Alumni Relations
I first arrived at Eastside Prep in the summer of 2006. Our oldest students were moving into the tenth grade. All thirteen of them. We had a mountain of challenge ahead. The recruitment of students and a faculty. The development of curriculum. The building of a campus. Not the palatial buildings we now enjoy, but the slow development of usable classrooms from spaces designed for an office park.
One could turn in any direction and see some aspect of the school that needed thought, time, and energy. It was both daunting and wonderfully exciting. The story of that development is a whole different tale. For the purpose of this article, suffice to say the one thing I did not worry about at the time was the development of a college counseling program.
Hired then as Upper School Head, much of my professional experience had been in the world of college admissions. I spent my first years out of college working as an admission officer at my alma mater. It was through this work that I discovered independent schools. I’d graduated from a large public high school in the Chicago area. In my uninformed mind, private schools were Catholic or for kids who got in trouble…or both. As I traveled for my admission work, I discovered a different type of school; one where mutual trust and respect are the standard between adults and students. I knew I wanted in.
When I arrived at Eastside Prep twenty years later, I’d been working as a college counselor or overseeing a program for that entire time. Understandably, college admission was at the center of many frequently asked questions by our current and prospective families. How will students from a new school be viewed by colleges? How will colleges understand the quality of our program?
I had plenty of contacts throughout the admission world and began working to make sure we were a known enterprise, if just a fledgling one. I wrote to friends and acquaintances at 300 colleges letting them know of our existence. We hosted programs for our students and parents to familiarize them with the process. We brought admission officers to campus, many coming even when our eleventh graders were our oldest students.
Before I knew it, two classes had moved on to college, and to places that confirmed our program and students were garnering deserved respect. Those first two classes were so small (eleven and four, respectively) that I could counsel each student. As we progressed to the Class of 2011 and its thirty-one members, it was clear I’d need help. Enter Lauren Formo, then working in our admission office. Lauren, like me, had a father who was a revered and longtime fixture in the college admission world. She grew up knowing the process innately, and then built upon those experiences professionally. We were able to serve our students and families well, even while doing other full-time jobs. But we also knew that would not be possible forever. So we then enlisted Elena Olsen and Matt Delaney. They served as co-counselors with me and Lauren respectively, and learned the business as we went. Both brought the central skills needed to succeed and thrive: the ability to listen and the love of students as individuals. The rest was gained as they went. A few years later, the program and office had grown to the point that we needed administrative support. Elizabeth Andersen was hired in 2015 to fill that role.
OUR MOST CENTRAL BELIEF IS STUDENTS ARE BEST SERVED BY WORKING WITH PEOPLE THEY’VE MET EARLIER IN THEIR EASTSIDE PREP CAREER.
Through all that time, we ran a relatively traditional and successful program. Students had good results and the spread of our graduates at notable institutions throughout the country grew. Underneath this success, though, were murmurs of discontent. By the 2015-16 school year, we had forty seniors and 181 total students in the Upper School.
Everyone on the college counseling team had other portions of their job that were growing more demanding and complicated as our school grew. Additionally, there was a subtle change going on in the process. More and more students were filing applications early in the senior year. In the fall, college counselors host admission officers on our campus, consult with students on the strategy and makeup of their list, read and advise on the essays of students, and write comprehensive, holistic letters of recommendation for each senior. As the fall compressed, it became more difficult to fit in all the tasks necessary. It is a lot to juggle, and we weren’t always juggling it perfectly.
Enter our fourth mission point: innovate wisely. Other independent school college counseling offices were experiencing similar challenges, even when they were staffed by people solely doing college counseling. And most were just hiring extra people without thought of modifying the roles and approach. I’ll be forever grateful to Terry Macaluso who proposed a much more radical change. She saw the need to divide and conquer. From this came the creation of three roles: Process Coach, Writing Coach, and me as Head of College Counseling. Every student is assigned a Process Coach and Writing Coach, while I meet with every family. This allowed me to share my old age longterm experience, with everyone, while staffing the program in a manner that provided every student specialized assistance in distinct parts of the process.
In January 2016, we implemented this program to serve the Class of 2017. Allison Luhrs joined Elena Olsen to serve as our initial Writing Coaches. Kelly Violette and Sam Uzwack joined Matt Delaney to serve as our initial three Process Coaches. In addition to creating these roles, we modified the program dramatically. We added programming in the tenth through twelfth grades, trying to better inform students about the process. Most notably, we created three mandatory meetings between our college counselors and each student and their family. These meetings began in the winter of eleventh grade and culminated in the fall of the twelfth grade.
This last point was especially controversial in the view of the broader college counseling world. There was a prevailing wisdom that students needed to do this on their own and involving parents too much threatened that independence. We believed it was inherently a whole family process. We made it clear that the students were captains of the ship, but they had a crew of support, and that included parents. It is a change I now can’t imagine not having made. Our parents see the process more clearly and partner well with our counselors in support of the students. It is the rare exception when a parent exerts too much influence in our meetings.
Our most central belief is students are best served by working with people they’ve met earlier in their Eastside Prep career. The college application process creates anxiety among many students and families. It is easier to work with someone with whom you’ve already developed a comfortable, trusting relationship. We’ve moved other existing faculty members onto the college counseling team since 2016. Anthony Colello joined the team as a Process Coach in 2018 and continued to teach fifth graders. Elizabeth Andersen is now a Process Coach and teaches seventh graders. This year, Mike Anderson is replacing Anthony as a Process Coach. Mike has worked with numerous students in our Guided Study Hall program and is another familiar face for students. Finally, Stephen Keedy, who has taught many students in our ninth and tenth grade lit classes is joining our team as a third Writing Coach.
It is great to see our program continue to evolve as we gain more experience in this model and bring new people into the team. It is also noteworthy that another Seattle-area independent school is experimenting with the writing coach/process coach model. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. While nothing will ever be perfect, I take great pride in the fact that students and families feel well-supported through the process.