In Springfield, the public high school guidance departments have their hands full. For years, guidance deans have helped thousands of students get through high school and prepared them for what came after graduation day — whatever that might be. But changes the Springfield school district says were mandated by the federal government significantly changed what guidance counselors do, with a stronger emphasis on improving test scores and paying attention to students in all grade levels.

In Springfield, the public high school guidance departments have their hands full.

For years, guidance deans have helped thousands of students get through high school and prepared them for what came after graduation day — whatever that might be.

But changes the Springfield school district says were mandated by the federal government significantly changed what guidance counselors do, with a stronger emphasis on improving test scores and paying attention to students in all grade levels. Some students say the changes haven’t had much impact day to day, but others liked things the way they used to be.

In the past, Lanphier, Springfield and Southeast high schools employed three guidance deans — one per grade — who kept track of the same group of students during their final three years of high school. Meanwhile, the school’s assistant principal was in charge of the freshman class and oversaw the work of the guidance deans.

These four school organizers followed a class of students until graduation day. As guidance deans, they made sure they had enough credits to graduate on time, scheduled classes and recommended students for college.

In 2007, Walter Milton, school superintendent of District 186 in Springfield, overhauled the way the school’s guidance system worked.

Each of Springfield’s three public high schools now has one guidance dean and four assistant principals to handle the more than 4,000 high school students in the district.

The guidance dean and the assistant principals work with all grade levels. The assistant principals focus on scheduling, behavior referrals and discipline. The guidance dean handles college applications, scholarships and other post-secondary work.

The change is the result of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which aims to raise the achievement level of students across the nation. Some students — including those in Springfield — were not performing well enough on tests to satisfy the federal government.

So the U.S. Department of Education required the Springfield district to restructure.

“It was part of a restructuring act by the Department of Education that was handed down to us from federal officials. Schools that weren’t performing well had to be restructured. And you had to abide by the rules,” said Jimmy Rice, spokesman for the Springfield School District.

For five consecutive years, Lanphier and Southeast high schools did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress standards. After the fifth year of scoring low on the standardized tests used to measure AYP, the Department of Education presented the district with four options.

The options included hiring an outside company to operate schools, starting over with an almost entirely new staff, and making a school a charter school (a public school that is freed from some regulations, but also must meet high achievement standards). The Springfield district chose the fourth option: a “major restructuring” of management, financing or staffing.

The district’s school guidance system is now divided into four academies, with each assistant principal in charge of one academy. The students are assigned to academies by their last names.

“We believe that the academies will bring us one step closer to achieving the academic success we need. We are optimistic about the positive results this new high school academy model will yield. Effective and efficient change takes time,” Rice said.

Rice said that by the end of this school year, the district will know if the change is working.

The impact

Not everyone agrees the changes are better.

Before the 2007-08 school year, John Lawson, current guidance dean at Springfield High School, was in charge of the sophomore class graduating this year, while three other guidance counselors were responsible for the rest of the students.

As a guidance dean, he said, his role was simple: to help students graduate.

“I don’t like it as well as the other model we used to have. I don’t think it’s nearly effective,” Lawson said.

Aislinn Bartlett, a senior at SHS, is unhappy about the new system. She says students must go to two people for educational help: her assistant principal for schedule changes and Lawson for post-secondary education.

“It’s dumb,” she said.

Aislinn also says the new implementation was never explained.

“It makes me feel like they don’t know what they’re (the administrative staff) talking about any more than we do,” she said.

Another SHS student, senior Audrey Suchomski, says she would miss having Lawson as her guidance dean because the two had known each other since her freshman year.

“I just don’t like the idea that you have a guidance counselor who doesn’t know you and write recommendation letters for college,” the 17-year-old said.

However, Audrey says, SHS lets Lawson guide the 2010 class he had in the first place.

“They kind of let Mr. Lawson take care of us,” she said. “He’s known us for three years.”

Lawson said he found the old system more practical than the new — and more beneficial for the students.

“You really got to know ’em (the students),” he said.

Some students don’t feel affected at all by the new system. Some are unaware when the change took effect — such as Sarah Maxson.

“I don’t think it affected me. They (assistant principals) kind of do what the old counselors did. I just have a different (counselor),” the 16-year-old SHS junior said. “It doesn’t really matter to me.”

Heather Daniel, who has worked as the guidance dean at Lanphier for two years, said she thinks her role has narrowed compared to her experience as a high school guidance counselor at Maplewood-Richmond Heights in suburban St. Louis three years ago.

“In Missouri, I was very focused on the four-year plan to make an excellent plan for high school,” she said. “I did all high school scheduling and crisis counseling — such as social issues, homelessness, etc. It was a wider experience. I dealt more with personal issues and education. It was student-focused.”

In Springfield, the responsibilities of guidance counselors such as Daniel and Lawson now mostly consist of coordinating standardized testing — such as the SAT and ACT, two college entrance exams.

They also deal with college applications and other post-secondary work.

“I enjoy it very much,” Daniel said.

Mike Taylor, who has been an SHS assistant principal since October, handles students with last names S-Z.

“Right now, I make sure everyone has the right coursework,” he said. And because students are not organized by graduating year anymore, Taylor meets new students every day.

Usually, the students ask if they can handle challenging courses, he said. And now that a new semester has started, requests for schedule changes happen daily.

“It’s a new day every day,” Taylor said.

Aimee LaPlant is a senior at Springfield High School and a correspondent for The Voice, the State Journal-Register's teen publication.