Counselors handle a range of needs

FAIRMONT – No day is a typical day. This is the slogan that best describes the work of Jenny Schwieger and Scott Geerdes, counselors at Fairmont Junior/Senior High School.

“I don’t know what a typical day would be,” Geerdes said. “When I walk into the office in the morning, I have no idea what kind of day it will be. No monotony at all – zero.”

March exemplified their need to “roll with it,” Geerdes said. During the month, the counselors met with groups of students to update them on required and elective courses, and assist them in registering for fall classes.

This year, more than 100 students missed the group sign-up because of post-season play for the boys and girls basketball teams, the band that played for the games, and the speech and knowledge bowl teams at competitions. These students had to be registered separately at a later date.

“It was a very memorable month,” said Geerdes, adding that these individual registrations are in addition to the 97 new students who have enrolled at the school since the start of the term.

The first high school counselor was hired in 1917 with a focus on vocational guidance. The job has evolved in the last decade to include working with students in academic, career and personal/social domains, although the counseling role can change from school to school, Schwieger said.

“Our goal is to meet the students’ needs and help them reach their potential,” she said.

That’s a simple explanation for a multitude of responsibilities.

Schwieger and Geerdes share dozens of duties, including working with parents, students and staff, registering current and new students, and testing, but they split other duties such as college financial aid programs and seventh-grade orientation.

Geerdes takes students whose last names begin with A-L, with Schwieger handling M-Z. This division is advantageous to students and their families, allowing them to become familiar with a specific counselor.

With the school year winding down, the counselors turn their focus to ensuring that students, especially the seniors, pass their courses.

“Without question, our goals here for the last eight weeks is to have all our seniors stay on track,” said Geerdes, adding that each year, a handful of seniors tend to shift into “park” as commencement nears.

Perhaps the most astounding aspect of the counselors’ job involves the College In the Schools program, or CIS, and the thousands of dollars in education costs being saved by local families.

CIS allows students who meet academic and testing criteria to take any of eight college-level courses taught by fully licensed faculty at the school. This year, 223 CIS classes are being taken by high-achieving juniors and seniors.

If the credits earned by these students were taken at a two-year college, the accrued savings would be more than $130,000. Those same credits at the University of Minnesota would run over $330,000. At a private college, the cost would be almost $833,000.

“These are actual savings,” Geerdes said.

Schwieger said her son participated in Fairmont’s CIS classes and enrolled at the U of M with 13 credits already on his transcript. That equated almost $6,000 in tuition savings.

Students taking CIS courses must get a C or higher grade to be awarded credits, Geerdes said.

“I have yet to run into an FHS grad that said these credits have not transferred in [to a college],” he said. “It saves families hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.”

The rapidly approaching summer break offers a bit of a respite for the counselors to rejuvenate, but they don’t have the luxury of taking three months off.

“We have to check about 850 transcripts and schedules, work through all course conflicts, register between 8 and 12 exchange students,” Geerdes said.

Also, providing a smooth transition for incoming seventh-graders is a priority.

“A lot of collaboration happens,” Schwieger said.

The social workers, deans of students, staff and administration join the counselors and their administrative assistant, Mary Granheim, to take care of their 800-plus clients.