The White House
Office of the First Lady
Remarks by the First Lady to the American School Counselor Association Annual Conference -- Orlando, Florida
The Dolphin Hotel
11:42 A.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Yes! (Applause.) How is everybody feeling today? (Applause.) It is really, really my pleasure. You guys, rest yourselves. You work hard enough. (Laughter.) No need to stand for my remarks. It is truly a pleasure and an honor to be with you today, so thank you for having me. Thank you so much.
Let me start by thanking Shari for that very kind introduction, but more importantly, for her service as your Board Chair and as a school counselor out in St. Louis.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes!
MRS. OBAMA: Yes! St. Louis in the house? (Applause.) All right. What about Chicago? We could try that. (Applause.) Okay, I’ll stop. (Laughter.)
I also want to thank your Executive Director, Dr. Richard Wong, for his leadership at ASCA. And of course, I’ve got to give a big shout-out to my dear friend, Stedman Graham. Yes, indeed. (Applause.) Now, see, Stedman is a tough act to follow, but I’m going to do my best. I know he imparted words of wisdom, but I’m going to try and do the same.
But most of all, I want to recognize all of you for everything you do for our young people every single day. And I have to tell you, when I found out that you all were making me an honorary school counselor, my first thought was, there is absolutely no way I’m worthy of this honor. Because I know that you all have one of the hardest, most stressful, most important and most underappreciated jobs of anyone in this country -- and I live with the President of the United States. (Applause.) So frankly, when I think about what you all do on an average day, well, quite frankly, I’m amazed.
An average day for all of you might start with a child sobbing in your office because she’s being bullied or having trouble at home. Or maybe it’s the kid who’s been kicked out of every class, and he’s sitting in front of you, angry and defiant, and it’s up to you to figure out how to help him get back on track.
And then, later on in the day, perhaps you meet with an overwhelmed parent who’s not sure that they can really trust you, so you’ve got to convince them that you’re there to help and that you’re on their side. And then maybe you see that kid with so much promise but who doesn’t think she’s college material and refuses to apply to any schools because she doesn’t know how she’s going to pay for school, so you’ve got to somehow show her that she has what it takes to succeed in life.
And those are just a few ways that you support our young people every day. Too often, you are the only adults in their lives who aren’t there to grade them or judge them or punish them, and that’s why they seek you out when they have nowhere else to turn.
So before I say anything else today, I want to say something that I’m sure you all don’t hear nearly enough, and that is, thank you. Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you for your passion and your dedication. Thank you for refusing to give up on a single child because you believe that every child has promise and every child has something to contribute.
And as First Lady, I share that conviction, which is why I want to talk with you about my new initiative that Shari mentioned; I launched it recently to help all of our children fulfill their boundless potential. It’s called Reach Higher, and the goal is to inspire every young person in this country to complete their education beyond high school.
And I’m here today because, while we talk a great deal about the role of teachers and principals and parents in preparing kids for higher education, often, engaged school counselors like all of you are the deciding factor in whether young people attend college or not.
Just take the example of a young woman named Sbeidy Dominguez from Escondido, California. Now, no one in Sbeidy’s family had ever attended college -- I know you see many kids like that -- but her school counselor, Rita Guerra, insisted that she was college material. So Rita pushed Sbeidy to take the SATs and the ACTs and enroll in AP classes. Then, senior year, Sbeidy became pregnant, and her dreams of college started to seem impossible.
But once again, Rita stepped in. She helped Sbeidy find medical care, to complete her FAFSA forms, and to make up her AP exams after she gave birth. And as a result, Sbeidy graduated in the top one percent of her high school class, and this fall, she will be starting [her senior year] at the University of California in Riverside. (Applause.) That’s the difference that you all make in a student’s life.
You’re the ones planting the seeds about college as early as elementary school and middle school, making it clear that higher education is the expectation, not the exception. You’re the ones grabbing kids in the hallway to tell them to sign up for that right college prep program, to check out that website for professional training opportunities, to convince them that they belong in that AP class and then to call the teacher to make sure it happens. And when push comes to shove, you’re the ones helping our students meet those deadlines, and write those essays, and untangle those financial aid forms.
I recently saw this firsthand at a financial aid event run by school counselors at a school in Virginia. Students and parents had gathered to learn how to fill out their FAFSA forms. Many of these parents hadn’t gone to college, and they seemed anxious and overwhelmed. But I watched how those counselors interacted -- they were joking with those kids and patiently answering their parents’ questions, and I could see the connection that they had to those families, and I could see the bonds of trust that had been formed.
And those parents and kids walked away feeling hopeful. They walked away feeling like they weren’t alone, like maybe they could do this college thing after all. And that’s the impact that you all have. And by putting our kids on the path to higher education, you all are literally affecting the entire course of their lives.
See, 40 or 50 years ago, most kids could expect to graduate from high school and then go out and get a decent-paying job at a local factory or business. But, as you all know, today, most of the fastest-growing jobs in this country require higher education, and college graduates, as you know, earn twice as much as folks with only a high school diploma.
So higher education is no longer just for kids in the top quarter or the top half of the class -- college is for everyone. Every student in this country needs some higher education, whether that’s two-year degree, a four-year degree, or professional training of some sort. But while in recent decades the need for college counseling has skyrocketed, the staffing and resources have not kept pace with this increased need.
And all of you know the numbers. While school counselors at private schools have an average caseload of 106 students, and ASCA recommends no more than 250 students per counselor, the national average is one school counselor for every 471 students. And that is outrageous. Outrageous. (Applause.) And one in five American high schools doesn’t have any school counselors at all –- none. And that’s appalling. And a lot of people in this country have no idea about these numbers. They have no idea about all the other challenges you face just to do your jobs.
For example, those of you at the high school level are expected to help students choose between thousands of colleges and certificate programs and countless financial aid packages, but hardly any of your master’s degree programs included training on college and career readiness. (Applause.) On top of that, today, students at all levels are arriving at school with greater needs and pressures and distractions, but instead of giving you time to deal with these issues, too often your schools burden you with all kinds of unrelated responsibilities. (Applause.)
So while you might be the most highly educated professional in the building, instead of being allowed to do the job you were trained for, you’re assigned to proctor exams, or monitor the lunchroom, or serve as substitute teachers. (Applause.) And then I understand that on professional development days, you have to sit through yet another workshop on reading strategies or the new math curriculum because there aren’t any professional development units relevant to your job. (Applause.)
So today, we make all kinds of demands on our school counselors, but we often don’t give you the support you need to meet those demands. And this is unacceptable. School counseling should not be an extra or a luxury just for school systems that can afford it. School counseling is a necessity to ensure that all our young people get the education they need to succeed in today’s economy.
And that’s why when we launched Reach Higher we decided to make school counselors a key focus of our work. See, the purpose of Reach Higher is very simple –- yes. (Applause.) You are at -- the key. One of the things we’re trying to do through Reach Higher is to help us reach my husband’s North Star goal -- that by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. And we simply cannot achieve this goal unless you all have what you need to do your jobs. (Applause.)
And that’s why, today, I’m pleased to announce three new efforts to support and recognize school counselors across this country.
First, as many of you might know, just yesterday, our Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released new guidance for students -- for superintendents and school principals, and he stated that they can and should use their budgets to create professional development units for school counselors -- that was just yesterday. (Applause.) Because our Secretary of Education knows that every school counselor in this country should have quality, relevant professional development opportunities, end of story.
Second, I’m thrilled that the White House will be partnering with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with ASCA, and with other organizations to host a special event on college counseling at the end of July. And together, we’ll be coming up with ambitious new agenda items to improve training, professional development and support for school counselors.
And third -- and I hope this is something you’ll like -- my husband and I think that it’s time that we started giving our school counselors the recognition that you all deserve for the work that you do. So, as you may know, every year we honor the national Teacher of the Year at the White House. Well, starting next year, for the first time ever, we will also hold a White House ceremony honoring the School Counselor of the Year. (Applause.) Yes. This is a start. It is really a start.
The idea behind these efforts is very simple: We want to celebrate our school counselors, and we want to highlight what’s working in college counseling across the country. Because we know that so many of you are already leading the way.
For example, Jeremy Goldman, who is the 2014 Maryland High School Counselor of the Year -- you guys know Jeremy? (Laughter.) Is he kind of cool? Where -- is Jeremy here? Jeremy, where are you? Hey, Jeremy! (Applause.) You! Well, Jeremy noticed that hardly any African American students in his school were enrolling in AP classes, so his counseling team worked with teachers and the principal and created an action plan to close this gap. And today, both enrollment and test scores are up for African American students in his school. (Applause.)
And Kendra Moulton -- is Kendra -- is she in the house? Well, let me tell you about Kendra, because she couldn’t make it. (Laughter.) She’s a school counselor at the Edmund G. Ross Elementary School in Albuquerque, and --
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Woo hoo!
MRS. OBAMA: Yeah -- (laughter) -- and works to create a college mindset starting as early as kindergarten. She does this by plastering her school with college pennants, and sponsoring college T-shirt days. She conducts career days with fifth graders, pushing them to think about the higher education that they’re going to need for the jobs of their dreams.
And in districts across the country, school counselors are leading the charge to get more students to fill out their FAFSA forms. In Miami, FAFSA completion rates jumped by 13 percent in just one year, and in San Antonio, they jumped by 31 percent. Yes. (Applause.) And these school districts are no different than any others, and they face every challenge you can possibly imagine.
So if they can find creative ways to get students on track to college, then I know that every district in America can do the same. And when they do it, that won’t just transform the future of the students, it will transform the future of this country. Because that’s how we build the workforce we need to compete in today’s global economy.
And I know that seems like a big ask, especially with everything else you all have on your plates. But this isn’t the first time we’ve called on school counselors like all of you to help us meet a big national goal.
In fact, back in the 1950s, after the Russians launched Sputnik and we feared that America might lose the space race, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which actually called for the training of more school counselors. We did this because we knew that school counselors would play a vital role in identifying and preparing students to pursue careers in science and engineering.
And the same thing is true with our 2020 goal –- once again, we need your help, and we’re counting on you. And I know you all can do this, because the fact is that with every life you transform, with every life you save, you all have an impact that is truly beyond measure.
And just take the example of a young man I learned about named Mikela Jones. Mikela grew up on an Indian Reservation, and only --
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Woo hoo!
MRS. OBAMA: Yes. (Laughter.) And only one member of his tribe had gone to a four-year college, so Mikela was convinced that college just wasn’t for him. But Mikela’s school counselor, Antonio Lopez, had other ideas. Antonio pushed and prodded Mikela and insisted that he meet with college admissions officers, and as a result, Mikela didn’t just go to college, he became the first person from his entire Tribe to earn a master’s degree. And today, Mikela is a school counselor himself. (Applause.)
He chose this career -- and these are his words -- he said: “I wanted to be like Mr. Lopez, to remind students that they are special, important, and have something to offer the world.” He said, “That is how I repay him, by helping others.”
So here’s the thing, ASCA members -- whenever you get tired -- and I know that you do -- whenever you get frustrated or overwhelmed -- and I know that you do -- I want you to think about the extraordinary ripple effect of your work, because it’s real. I want you to think about the impact you have not just on every child whose life you transform, but on the family that child will raise, on the business where that child will work, on the community that child will one day serve. I want you to think about how long after those kids graduate your work lives on in their hearts and minds, and in the hearts and minds of everyone they touch.
So today, I want to end as I started –- by once again saying thank you. Really, thank you. Thank you for your compassion and determination. Thank you for the boundless love you show our children.
And I for one, as your First Lady, I am grateful for all that you do. And I look forward to working closely with you in the years ahead to give all our young people the bright futures they so richly deserve.
Thank you all. God bless. (Applause.)
12:01 P.M. EDT