While a majority of graduates of Oak Park and River Forest High School plan to attend a two- or four-year college, the school is now working hard to make sure those students not planning on college have clearer options and a leg up based on coursework they can take while still in high school.
Much of that guidance comes from the school’s core of counselors. When it comes to preparing students for life after high school, Oak Park and River Forest High School starts the conversation early. According to counselors at the school, post-secondary planning with students begins as early as February of their eighth-grade year after they have taken the placement tests for freshman year at the high school.
Counselor Brandi Ambrose says that the four to five-year plan is something that counselors try to put in place from the very beginning and that the plans are very individualized. It is normal for freshmen not to know what they want to do after high school graduation – a date that can seem very far away when you are 14, but Ambrose notes there are ways counselors can help offer guidance early on. “We work to build strong academic and critical thinking skills. We encourage them to take the hardest classes they are able to master and pair that with elective courses that they’re really interested in. We talk about their hobbies, their dream jobs and what they want to do, and we encourage participation in the 80-plus clubs and activities we have here.”
Students stay with the same counselor throughout high school. Ambrose says this is a key to relationship building. “We meet them when they start, and we hand them their diplomas on graduation day. Through it all, we are guided by what’s best for the kids and how do we build and enhance the relationship?”
While Ambrose says the majority of OPRF grads pursue two- or four-year college degrees, that is not the end goal of the counseling program. Formal tools such as Naviance not only provide aid in the college search, but also help students explore personality traits and strengths to determine what kinds of fields of study or careers might be a good fit in the future. She says, “The overarching umbrella is that we have an individualized focus for each student at each grade level.”
According to counselor Esteban Medina the school is seeing growing student interest in other post-high school options. Last year, the school began offering nursing classes at the school, and on completion, students can sit for a certificate that will allow them to apply for jobs in the field. The cosmetology program has expanded into a two-year program, allowing successful students to graduate from high school with a cosmetology certificate.
This year, OPRF is also hosting an apprenticeship exposition, which will be open to students throughout the area and offers access to trades such as plumbing, carpentry, electrical and construction work. An Additional Pathways program in the spring recognizes that not all students seek out four-year colleges and that there are pathways to good jobs that don’t require a college degree.
Medina notes that the Additional Pathways presentation drew interest not just from families of juniors and seniors, but from younger families as well. “People are very relieved to know that there are a lot of viable options beyond four-year colleges. We cover four main areas: certificate programs, associate degrees, going directly into the world of work and the military.”
Counselor Jacqueline Hanson says that for freshman, they use the word “post-secondary” intentionally, because at this point students are often not aware of the wealth of opportunities available at the school that could help them determine areas of interest. With programs such as entrepreneur skills, culinary classes, theater, child development, interior design, radio announcing, engineering, auto shop, woodworking and technology classes as well as certificate programs in cosmetology and certified nursing assistant (CNA) programs, the counselors try to make students aware of all of their options in the early stages of high school.
Hanson says, “We create a four-year plan that lays out classes, with post-secondary plans in mind, or if they don’t know what they want to do, we go based on their current interests. The document guides us for the next four years, but it is very flexible.”
She stresses that the plan is not an unwavering track. “We never ‘track.’ Students are in the lead with these plans. We follow, and we support. We never assume the plan includes a four-year college, and we never assume it does not.”
By junior year, the counselors are working with students and families to really hone in on what the kids want to do after high school. College callers visit the school in the spring and fall, including representatives from over 300 four-year colleges, two-year colleges, art schools, technology schools and the military.
By senior year, counselors are meeting with their students frequently in the fall to help them with the college application process or with the requirements for their chosen path. If the student wants to enroll in a certificate program or the military, their counselors help them determine the prerequisites and how to meet them.
At the end of the day, the choice of a post-secondary path reflects years of work by students, their families and their counselors. Ambrose says, “We start with healthy, strong learning skills in ninth grade, build on this every year and add layers such as standardized testing and college or career preparation. When families are involved in this, it’s so much richer.”
SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).
Post-secondary readiness resources:
OPRFHS Tutoring Center
Tutoring Center Monitor, Gabrielle Testerman,
at (708) 434-3493
Monday – Thursday
7:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m
Fridays 7:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m
Equity Team Inc.
academic supports K-12
Free College Prep
• FAFSA Completion Workshop: A financial aid professional available to answer questions and help you complete your FAFSA at no charge mid October at the Main Library.
• SAT Practice Test: Sign up for a free, fully proctored, full-length practice SAT test on 3rd Saturday, October at the Main Library.
• Preparing for the SAT or ACT? Testing & Education Reference Center (TERC) is designed to offer online test preparation for the SAT and ACT.
Private Tutors & College Prep Support
a list is kept on the OPRF High School Parent Facebook page
Financial Aid Support
Illinois Student Assistance Commission (www.isac.org)
• OPRF Rep: Vonna Hayes, Quavonna.Hayes@ISAC.illinois.gov