Spring 2008 Issue

Say you want a resolution

College Reach Out Program helps Miami students resolve conflicts and overcome their fears about going to college

By Celeste Fraser Delgado

It’s the end of the day at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, and Ms. Antoine’s sixth-grade class is huddled in the library, waiting for the bell. Eleven-year-old Tyswan is leaning on his elbows at a long, rectangular table, while he and his classmates talk with a visitor about the best way to handle conflict.

If someone calls you a name or tries to start a fight, what’s the best thing to do?

“To walk away,” Tyswan says emphatically.

Cedric, also 11, has a better idea: “To punch them in the mouth and leave.”

Tyswan ignores Cedric’s clowning. In a calm voice that sounds like it belongs to a much older man, he continues: “Ask them what’s wrong. Why are they mad at you?”

Devon, another 11-year-old, is impressed. “Tyswan, you sound like a professional,” he breaks in.

Though not quite five feet tall, Tyswan has been paying close attention during the weekly visits to Ms. Antoine’s class by counselors from the College Reach Out Program. Established by the Florida Legislature in 1983, CROP is a statewide program designed to prepare low-income sixth- through 12th-graders for college, especially those who might not otherwise consider a postsecondary education. For the 2007-2008 school year, the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) granted nearly $3.4 million to 39 institutions of higher learning across the state to provide services, such as tutoring, Saturday and summer school, and campus visits.

The program is a proven success. According to the most recent figures, from 2005-2006, 79 percent of CROP students graduated with a standard high school diploma, compared with 59 percent of non-CROP students. And of students who graduated with a standard diploma, 72 percent of CROP students went on to college while only 57 percent of non-CROP students did.

Students from Thomas Jefferson Middle School participating in the CROP program get a chance to sample some future careers at a field trip to Wannado City in Sunrise, Florida, on December 14.

In 1990, Barry University joined Florida Memorial University to form the North Dade County Consortium (NDCC) and offer a joint CROP program. While FMU students provide more traditional college prep services, graduate students in Barry’s Adrian Dominican School of Education offer therapeutic counseling.

“NDCC is unique because it digs deeper into the root causes of underachievement and works to address them through counseling and other activities,” says Adeola Fayemi, director of the Office of Equity and Access for the FDOE.

Where traditional guidance counseling prepares a student for college by helping them enroll in the appropriate classes or offering academic counseling, CROP director Silvia Reyes’93,’96 explains that therapeutic counseling addresses the emotional and behavioral issues that might distract students from their studies.

“If a child can’t focus, he can’t learn,” Reyes says.

Determined to remove those barriers, Barry counselors lead both group and individual counseling sessions at four school sites in Miami-Dade County: Thomas Jefferson, North Dade Middle School, North Miami Senior High School, and Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School. Every Wednesday, Barry counselors visit Ms. Antoine’s sixth-graders.

That’s how 12-year-old Essence learned what to do if you have a secret or if there’s a person in your class you don’t like.

“Don’t spread it out to your friends,” she says. “Just write it in a journal.”

It’s just halfway through the school year, and already the CROP counselors’ lessons are sinking in. The sooner the better, because for many college-bound students there may be bigger obstacles ahead: teen pregnancy, domestic and gang violence, substance abuse, financial troubles, or an illness or death in the family. Students who have recently immigrated to the United States face additional challenges, so Barry also offers a Spanish-language counseling program at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High.

In CROP sessions, Barry counselors lead groups of students through exercises designed to help them explore and express their emotions. Reyes describes one exercise in which students at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High were asked to make a collage representing how they see their present and their future. One student represented her future with pictures of smiling, close-knit families. But for her present, she chose only dark and gloomy pictures.

As it turns out, the student and her mother had recently moved to Miami from the Dominican Republic; her mother was working two jobs and rarely home. New to her school, no one spoke to the teen between classes or after school. She had been recommended to CROP after she told her school counselor that she was so lonely that she had even contemplated suicide. But when she shared her collage and story with the group, Reyes says, the girl’s outlook quickly brightened. Other group members invited her to a birthday party and made a point of seeking her out in the hallways.

“Students can talk about their feelings without being told how they should feel,” Reyes says. “The students come up with their own solutions for their problems.”

Students and their parents get a chance to ask questions about the program at one of its regularly scheduled AVID Family Social Nights. The students and their parents pictured above participated in this event held at Thomas Jefferson Middle School Auditorium November 9.

That’s a central tenet of the approach to counseling taught at Barry. “Rather than follow traditional counseling models that emphasize the clients’ deficits and focus on fixing the problem, our curriculum and training emphasizes a strength-based and solution-focused orientation,” says Barry education professor Jeffrey T. Guterman, author of the 2006 book “Mastering the Art of Solution-Focused Counseling.” Guterman believes a strength-based approach is particularly well-suited to the middle and high-school students who participate in CROP. “It’s a model that helps this population identify and build on their existing strengths, resources, and problem-solving capabilities,” he says.

During a CROP exercise conducted by Barry counselors at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High one afternoon in December, Rosalie Hossack, a 22-year-old graduate student from Jamaica, asks a dozen or so teenagers to pair up and write three words that characterize their partners.

After 10 or 15 minutes, Hossack asks the group to put their desks in a circle. She then invites volunteers to share one characteristic from their partner’s list that they would either like to diminish or develop further in themselves. (Because this is a counseling session, none of the students’ names will be used).

As the exercise moves around the circle, a young man in a black T-shirt and khaki pants puzzles over a word his partner used to describe him. It’s not a word he would expect to hear from his peers.

This young man had been referred to CROP by the in-school counselor because his father recently died, and his house burned to the ground shortly afterward. Understandably angry, he had been suspended from school for fighting.

“She put ‘caring,’ ” the young man says. “I don’t know why.”

The rest of the group is confused. What’s wrong with being described as caring?

“I care about people,” he says, “When they care back.”

As he speaks, the young man glares across the room at a young woman in a blue T-shirt, who had earlier been described by her partner as “mean.”

“Like who?” the girl demands, glaring back at him.

“Like you,” the young man snaps.

It turns out that the squabbling teens live in the same neighborhood in Opa-Locka, along with another young woman who had earlier said she hoped to be more “generous.” All of a sudden the two women are yelling at the young man, accusing him of treating them rudely and of even threatening to “shoot up” one girl and her home. Both women talk so fast that it’s hard for the rest of the group to understand what they’re saying.

Hossack tries to get the exercise back on track, asking the young man to review the words used to describe him to see if there are any he would like to improve or change.

He sits in silence.

Meanwhile, his antagonists shout at him across the room: “What you in here for?”

The young man slumps over his desk and hides his head in his hands.

For a moment, the three Barry counselors look at each other in panic. But no one berates the young women for going on the attack.

No one tries to determine who is right or wrong. Instead, Hossack encourages the young women to consider what they hope to gain by yelling at the young man.

“What are you trying to get from him?” she explains.

Later, Hossack explains why she asked that question. “I was trying to use a narrative perspective to get at the story behind what they were saying,” she says.

That too is a strategy in strength-based counseling. Through narrative, CROP coordinator and doctoral student Cindy George explains, clients are encouraged to tell their own stories. “These stories are usually negative,” George observes. So the counselor helps them identify exceptions to those stories, other experiences where those problems did not arise. Then the counselors help the clients try to build on those examples.

“The clients are [then] able to make their own solutions.”

At the Miami-Hialeah Lakes session, a senior wearing an orange shirt interrupts the young women who are yelling at the “caring” student. She is a veteran of CROP counseling sessions. How can the young man feel free to share his feelings if there are people in the group attacking him, she asks.

“If I was him, I’d put my head down and not say [anything] either.”

“So you feel like this environment is not comfortable for him?” Hossack asks.

Raising his head slightly off the desk, the young man murmurs in agreement.

Then another senior notes that while the two girls from the young man’s neighborhood might perceive him as rude or threatening, her own experience with him has been positive.

“So what you’re saying is because you see this person in that situation, you don’t really know him?” asks Hossack. Following her thread, she then turns to the group and asks them if the same thing has ever happened to them or anyone in their family.

One by one, the students give examples of people they’ve misjudged at first meeting or who have misjudged them. The two girls who were shouting listen intently. Slowly, the young man lifts his head and sits up straight in his chair.

Reflecting on the exercise, a 10th-grader observes, “We talked about stereotypes and why that’s not right. Y’all might need each other one day.”

The woman in the orange shirt agrees, “Y’all might need each other one day.”