Natasha Brazil, Maureen Gonzalez, Jasmin Grabowski and Stephanie Petrou are four of 18 new Academic Advisors working closely with high school counselors at five Spring Branch ISD secondary campuses.
The brick walls in the big college and career room at Spring Woods High School display colorful higher education choices – University of Texas oranges, Stephen F. Austin State University purples, University of Houston Cougar reds, as well as dozens of other college logos and team colors.
For the four young professionals, or Academic Advisors, who meet with students daily in this comfortable, second-floor room – called the “To and Through the Woods Center” – connecting college logos and colors to more senior Tiger names is one of the key goals this school year.
The non-teaching Academic Advisor positions were created to help meet the district’s T-2-4 goal to double the percentage of graduates who complete military training, technical certification, or two- or four-year college degrees.
The counselor-to-student ratio in Texas has climbed to more than 1 counselor to 450 students. Advisors help close the gap in specific college and career guidance needs so students do not “fall through the cracks” before graduation.
“They are trained with a very specific set of skills, and have acquired knowledge directly related to the college-going and career search process,” said Erika Scott, SBISD’s To and Through Facilitator. “While advisors are not certified guidance counselors, they do support the counseling teams and work collaboratively with them to ensure every student has every opportunity to be successful.”
Scott most recently worked for three years as a program director for Texas A&M University’s chapter of the College Advising Corp. She earned a master’s degree in higher education leadership from the University of Arkansas, and she has worked in admissions and student affairs at several universities, as well as in college counseling at YES Prep Houston North Central.
She views the addition of the new advisors in SBISD as a “cutting edge” national initiative, one of the few non-grant funded efforts of its kind to bridge the student gap between high school graduation and postsecondary education and training. In general, SBISD’s Academic Advisors will help reach out and support hundreds of students as they plan for and then pursue future education and training options.
They will provide students with direction, support and encouragement. They’ve been trained in specific skills including, but not limited to, reading and analyzing student transcripts, secondary grading expectations, academic plans, navigating the college application process, and online guidance and career planning tools like Skyward and Naviance.
For Natasha, Maureen, Jasmin and Stephanie, this means helping to build a stronger college-going culture at Spring Woods High. They’ll help senior Tigers complete college applications, understand the financial aid process, and transition from high school to college, technical school or the military.
Stephanie Petrou, a Texas Lutheran University psychology graduate, worked in a community mental health center in Houston. “I realized that substance abuse and other problems that people develop all start at a young age. I wanted to work in a high school to reach that population early to make a difference,” she said.
“Academic advising seemed like the perfect fit to me. I can relate to the kids because I, too, struggled with actually getting to college, but when I made it I excelled and really loved college life!” Stephanie said.
“I would have loved to have a person in this position when I was facing being a teenage mom,” said Maureen Gonzalez, a 2009 Spring Woods High graduate who had a child while attending high school.
She graduated from Spring Woods High with two scholarships, then first earned a Houston Community College associates degree, followed by a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice through the University of Houston-Downtown this past May.
Maureen’s interested in pursuing a master’s degree in counseling. “Coming back to Spring Woods High School was important to me. I know the school demographics, and knowing the students and their families is important, I think. Our job here is to make the process easier to navigate – for students – and to support the hard work of our counselors,” Gonzalez said.
“They are awesome,” Spring Woods High Associate Principal Debbie Silber says. “These young people are definitely what we need. It’s incredible that we are able to have them here.”
At Spring Woods, the advisors are part of a weekly campus program called T-2-4 Success Class, where students in all grades meet for 90 minutes to focus on career and post-graduation planning with teachers and the new advisors.
“I see kids ask questions. I see awareness. I see connecting going on. Some kids do not connect with traditional counselors. Most of the advisors are young and so they connect with many of the students,” Silber adds.
Lawanda Jenkins, Spring Woods High’s lead post-secondary counselor, is working with the advisors, too. She praises their young outlook, ambition and energy.
“They are excited about being with the kids, and what they are all doing. They have different backgrounds and different experiences, and they all have their own strengths. Here at Spring Woods, we are proud of them,” she said.
Support for SBISD’s 18 academic advisors comes from the top. The SBISD Board of Trustees approved the new positions as a funding priority, and leadership took a role in bringing them into the district with support and encouragement.
When Superintendent of Schools Duncan F. Klussmann, Ed.D., toured the district with new hires on a school bus last spring, they took notice of his interest in their initial training and successful start.
“That impressed me a lot,” Jasmin Grabowski said of the district tour and training sessions led by other SBISD leaders last spring. She grew up in Germany, earned a bachelor’s degree in German from Texas State University in San Marcos, and then tutored math in the Houston ISD’s Apollo Program for some years. “I’m interested in being a school counselor now,” she says.
“For me, it was a perfect moment, perfect timing,” said Natasha Brazil, who wants to pursue a career and master’s degree in counseling, too. A 2012 graduate of Sam Houston State University, Natasha left Dallas to serve as an Academic Advisor.
How will Facilitator Erika Scott measure success? First, by improved numbers for all graduates, of course, but also by an overwhelming response from leadership, counselors and teachers that the work of the advisors is significantly impacting the district’s T-2-4 goals across all campuses.
“I would like to see us establish high standards and expectations for all students along with best practices in academic and college and career advising for a public school system,” she said.
“I would also like to hear from students that their own experiences through the T-2-4 process were empowering and that the support of the advisors helped them succeed. I’d like to see that having the advisors becomes invaluable to students and to counselors the same way we know counselors are invaluable to this work and to leading these teams,” Scott said.
SBISD Academic Advisors:
Memorial High School – Amanda Boni, Pia Venegas, Chelsea Champion, Allyson Clark
Stratford High School – Iliana Espinoza, Bridget Azzam, Todnesha Brown, Nadine Smith, Gerald Thomas
Spring Woods High School – Natasha Brazil, Maureen Gonzalez, Jasmin Grabowski, Stephanie Petrou
Northbrook High School – KaNani Coleman, Jackie Garcia, Amanda Louis, Deannah Stinson-Reese, Johnny Gonzales
Westchester Academy for International Studies – Margarita Abarca, Devan Bell