“I want kids to know I’m here to help and that their education doesn’t stop at high school. You’ve got to keep going.”

Kendall McArthur shared this with me after a long day of Senior Seminar Zoom sessions. Ms. McArthur is one of Building 21’s school counselors and she has been a school counselor with the School District of Philadelphia for over 20 years. When the pandemic hit last Spring, she took her tried and true post-secondary, seminar style program virtual to meet the needs of her students. 

It is no easy feat to coordinate post-secondary planning, college applications, and the financial aid documentation virtually.

For our school, a high touch, personalized, face-to-face process worked, yielding post-secondary placement for 100% of our students each year. Ms. McArthur reflected that it’s harder to follow students virtually. Under normal circumstances, you could find her seated at a makeshift desk in the hallway outside of the seniors’ English classroom, catching students in person for one last signature, one final piece of information. When she would see a student in between classes she’d say, “Come sit down and let’s get this done!” Now she is making these connections over Zoom. 

Building 21 Philadelphia prioritizes time in students’ schedules to complete these important activities.

Seniors spend one hour a week with Ms. McArthur in a virtual Senior Seminar; it’s when they hear from college and career speakers, meet representatives from a diverse group of post-secondary institutions, and complete the steps of their post-secondary plan. Ms. McArthur maintains an extensive network of relationships with admissions representatives and financial aid professionals across the region. Each year, she packs the fall seminar schedule with visits from familiar friends at the PA State System of Higher Education, Community College of Philadelphia, local HBCUs, and PHEAA. This year, she leveraged social media to reach out and connect with new colleges and trade schools; virtual visits made it easy for schools across the country to pop into a Zoom session and meet Building 21.

Ms. McArthur also holds application completion sessions online, hosting workshop style meetings where students can complete their applications online together and submit directly to the admissions representatives in attendance. This fall, students attended virtual college fairs, joining breakout rooms to learn about schools near and far. Ms. McArthur reflects that while the virtual fairs are different from in-person experiences, the nimble format allows students to make connections with people and schools they may have never considered.

As Naviance tracks the students’ post-secondary process, Building 21 makes strides towards 100% of students graduating with post-secondary plans. This work is a marathon; it begins long before senior year. Through academic studios, project-based learning opportunities, and Wayfinding Experiences, students in all grades explore a variety of careers, helping to guide their pathway.

Ms. McArthur helps students in all grades think about their interests and pathways after high school.

She visits all of the freshmen and sophomore classes to start these conversations and help the students make connections between their passions and post-secondary opportunities. Additionally, Ms. McArthur plans Wednesday speaker sessions that feature financial aid and post-secondary representatives and are open to all students.

  • WF.1 Exposure: I will learn about my strengths and interests as I complete studios and exhibit my learning.

  • WF.2 Using My Tools: I will engage with my PLP and learn how to look at my data dashboards.

  • WF.3 College and Career Preparation: I will start to look for post-secondary experiences.

  • WF.4 College and Career Planning: I will plan for a post-secondary experience and deeply engage in a problem or issue I am passionate about.

This semester, junior students begin their Junior Seminar with Ms. McArthur. They’ll spend the Spring exploring post-secondary paths and working on their plans. “Over the next 18 months, you’ll hate me, you’ll love me. I’m going to get you out of here with a plan. A diploma and a plan – these are the two things that you need.” The students don’t hate her, not in the least.

Senior, Jaelyn Johnson shares: “Ms. McArthur has had a tremendous impact on making sure each and every student is destined for success with a great path after high school. She has also been a phenomenal leader as she continuously goes out of her way to help students see the greatness in themselves!” 

Statistically and historically, many students like ours—i.e. first-generation college-goers who are low-income and youth of color—struggle to matriculate to college and complete their degree. Layer on a global pandemic, which has hit our communities the hardest, and our students have an even steeper hill to climb.

The National Student Clearinghouse reports that enrollment among Native American, African American, and Hispanic students has suffered the steepest declines over the past year, reversing gains that were made pre-Covid.

“I want to help. I want kids to know I’m here to help and that their education doesn’t stop at high school. You’ve got to keep going. Brown and black kids need to know that there is no place in this country to be uneducated.” 

Ms. McArthur meets each family and every student where they are during this challenging time.

She meets parents through virtual conferences and encourages them to email. “I’m an email away. Any time of day, just reach out.” 

“And it’s not just about acceptances. I’m always thinking about money for students too.” Ms. McArthur incorporates financial aid speakers and opportunities into her seminars. Helping students receive the maximum financial aid is a personal goal of Ms. McArthur’s. She works to ensure students’ FAFSA completion and makes connections to scholarship and aid opportunities whenever she can. This year, two students are contenders for the Keystone Scholarship, a prestigious award that covers not only tuition but many school and living expenses as well. 

I reached out to two Building 21 alums – both excelling at their respective universities and preparing to graduate from college over the next year – asking them to reflect on the impact Ms. McArthur and Building 21’s post-secondary planning process had on where they are today.

Luis Otano, a Junior at Penn State Main Campus, reflected: “In short: Ms. McArthur is truly one of the reasons why I am where I am now. From her small life quotes, to her amazing connections, to the love and support she always extends to me and everyone around me, she helped me through my college application process and still to this day she checks in on me and my progress through my undergraduate career. Ms. McArthur’s dedication and passion to the success of her students speaks to her character as a person and educator. She continues to be super influential to me! I consider her a part of my family and success network!”

And Angel Lebron, a Kutztown University senior, added: “Ms. McArthur made things possible! She removed the excuses from getting work done and the college applications done. I remember her constantly reminding us to be completing scholarships. She is an inspiration for young women and men.”

As the post-secondary planning process remains virtual into the foreseeable future, Ms. McArthur and her students carry on. One Zoom call, one application, one acceptance celebration at a time.