The continued importance of high school personnel’s support in the high-school-to-college transition, by Kathryn Fishman-Weaver

Creative Commons image from Flickr user KathrynFW

Creative Commons image from Flickr user KathrynFW

My student Kristan sends me an email. She is studying theater in Europe. Her first research paper is due in a couple weeks and she wants to know if I will look it over.  Although she graduated last May, she is still my student. I am glad to help her. I am also uniquely suited to do so, not because of special talents or compassion, but because of the rapport I’ve built with Kristan and my other students over their formative high school years. In this piece, I explore the role high school personnel (teachers and counselors specifically) can and should play in students’ transition from high school to college. A study by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching on undergraduate education in the United States reported “one of our most disturbing findings is the discontinuity that exists between the public schools and institutions of higher learning” (Boyer, 1986, 284). The purpose of this article is two-fold. First, I argue that high school teachers and counselors have the potential to be important supports for undergraduates as they navigate their freshmen and sophomore years. Secondly, I claim that because undergraduate support is not included in the scope of high school personnel’s work or within our notions of PK-16 education, that this continued student–teacher relationship is underutilized.

The transition to higher education can be jarring (Boyer, 1986; Jensen and Hovey, 1982; Venezia and Jager, 2013). I see this in the reasons that my former students reach out (or back) to me from college: for simple social-emotional support, academic writing, and letters of recommendation. College preparedness encompasses both academic and nonacademic skills (Venezia and Jager, 2013). College preparedness is also a process that continues to develop in higher education. It is important to make a couple distinctions here. First, this article is not on academic college readiness, which is a separate and important issue. Second, needing occasional support is not analogous with being underprepared.  As a teacher of gifted and advanced placement courses my students are very academically prepared for college coursework. This work benefits all students; even academically prepared students need support, particularly in times of major transition. The high availability of technology through computer labs and media centers in higher education institutions creates a more equitable platform for students to communicate with mentors and advisors across geographical locations. Although students can use this media to communicate with a wide range of advisors, the focus herein is on the potential of continued communication with high school personnel.

Why don’t undergraduates, particularly freshmen, reach out to their professors or college personnel instead? Deborah Hirsch (2010) addresses this question in part in her article on the high school to college transition. Hirsch cites the “college fear factor” coined by Rebecca Cox. In essence, Hirsch explains that many college students are intimidated (at least initially) by higher education personnel. While students are working through the college fear factor it makes sense for them to reach back to educators they are already comfortable with (e.g. high school personnel). As a transformational leader, an important piece of this relationship is to empower my alumni students in their journey to professionally self-advocate with the powers-that-be at their own institutions. However, I recognize that this work can take time and having a trusted mentor can provide powerful assistance along the way. Transformational leadership focuses on a sharing of power and compassionate concern for followers (Kezar et al. 2006, 34). It is distinguished by its focus on morals and ethics. I contend that continuing to support students post-graduation is the morally right thing to do. Shields (2004) writes, “Educators must become transformative leaders, develop positive relationships with students such that children may bring their own lived experiences” into student: teacher dialogue (113). Student–teacher relationships and dialogues often continue and evolve over time.

All early college learners can benefit from the occasional, positive supports of high school personnel who believe in their abilities. I have countless examples of my former students actively seeking out my support. The first morning I sat down to work on this article, I was interrupted by two requests from alumni students (one for help with an internship application and another for a letter of recommendation for a language immersion program). These requests for continued, occasional support cut across racial, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic differences. My student Karen is attending a freshman welcome program at her state college. A couple weeks after she arrives she sends me a message asking for some recommended reading. In her message she tells me she is homesick for our classroom. My student Nicolas writes to tell me about his volunteer work in Boston. He is studying at an Ivy League school and wants to know if I will write him a recommendation for an intersession program in service. My student Jane is on a semester leave from a select college. A few days after getting home, she asks if we can get together to talk. We set up regular times to visit.

In all of these examples my students self-advocate for support. This leads me to wonder (and worry) how many college students we are missing who could use a little extra support from high school personnel but don’t ask, or don’t think to ask because we view PK-12 as fundamentally separate from higher education? Educational leaders and individual teachers alike can initiate the shift in focus needed for these small, occasional, supports. While we can’t institutionalize compassion, educational leaders, including teacher leaders, must create spaces that encourage and support compassionate practices. What if we set aside two hours of professional development time (one per semester) for teachers and counselors to reach out to their postsecondary students? A phone call, email, or note offering to be sounding board or listening ear sent from someone who knew, cared for, and coached you in your formative years can be important during transition. My students’ connection to me doesn’t end with commencement; and if we are interested in truly supporting students PK-16, my support shouldn’t stop at graduation either.


Boyer, Ernest L. 1986. “Smoothing the Transition from School to College” The Phi Delta Kappan 68 (December) 283–287.

Hirsch, Deborah. 2010. “The High School to College Transition: Minding the Gap” The New England Journal of Higher Education (June),

Jensen, Eric and Hovey, Sue Young. 1982. “Bridging the Gap from High School to College for Talented Females.” Peabody Journal of Education 59 (April) 153-159.

Kezar, A. J., Carducci, R., & Contreras-McGavin, M. 2006. “A World Anew: The Latest Theories of Leadership.” In A. J. Kezar, R. Carducci, & M. Contreras-McGavin, Rethinking the “L” Word in Higher Education, 31-69. San Francisco: Wiley Periodicals Inc.

Shields, C. M. (2004). “Dialogic Leadership for Social Justice: Overcoming Pathologies of Silence.” Educational Administration Quarterly, 40(1), 109-132.

Venezia, Andrea, and Jaeger, Laura. 2013. “Transitions from High School to College” The Future of Children 23 (Spring) 117-136.

Kathryn Fishman-Weaver is a PhD student in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri. She holds a Masters in K-12 Special Education from San Francisco State University. Her current research interests include educational equity, student empowerment, and service learning models in special education and gifted education programs. Kathryn is a current high school teacher in gifted education.

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