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Guidance counsellors shedding their university-or-bust philosophy

Tavoy Williams, an 18-year-old student who is in Grade 12 at Forest Lawn High School in Calgary, talks to the wellness-centre guidance counsellor Tina Merali.

Chris Bolin/chris bolin The Globe and Mail

There was a time when students were only called into their guidance counsellor's office for one thing: to fill out a career questionnaire and determine if they were best suited for life as a doctor, lawyer or rocket scientist.

"There's traditionally been a bias toward the university-bound students, and a lot of the information supplied was for students in that group," said Carol MacFarlane, career programs co-ordinator for the Vancouver School Board. "It always has been an uphill battle when offering programs that are outside of that realm – for example, the trades. That's changing."

Counsellors and education officials have rewritten the handbook and are reaching out to students for whom university may not be a realistic or attractive option. Those seeking a career in the trades are receiving more attention.

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To link these students with training and mentors, the Calgary Board of Education recently signed agreements with the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta and an association representing plumbers and pipe fitters. Cathy Faber, superintendent of learning innovation for the board, said the plan is to provide students with hands-on training.

"We're cracking the egg on all the new ways that students need to be able to complete high school successfully and I think that's the breakthrough," Ms. Faber said. "We're going to find a way to build success for each student, and we're going to challenge some of the traditional models."

Tina Merali, wellness centre co-ordinator at Calgary's Forest Lawn High School, said as the school's diversity has grown, so too has demand for trades programs.

"Not everyone's able to go to university and become a lawyer or doctor," said Ms. Merali, who has 17 years experience as a teacher and counsellor. "We have trades courses because the kids who are very good with their hands, they're able to be successful. That's also necessary, that's an important aspect of society. We are shifting more and offering more support in that area."

One of the students who took advantage of that support was Tavoy Williams, who's in Grade 12 at Forest Lawn. The 18-year-old, who moved to Calgary from Jamaica a year ago, is working toward a career as a heavy-duty mechanic. A school counsellor helped him land an apprenticeship.

While some immigrant families discourage their children from pursuing a career in trades because they see it as less prestigious, the irony is that requirements for some programs are higher than those for university, Ms. MacFarlane said.

"It used to be that people would suggest if you couldn't go to university and you couldn't do anything else you could do a trade program," she said. "Now there's a switch."

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Ms. MacFarlane said more and more students see the value of hands-on skills in a tough economy.

Guidance counsellors are also adapting to other realities, providing support for at-risk students who may be dealing with mental-health issues, or emotional or economic crises at home.

Rob Rymer, who's served as a counsellor for more than two decades, operates the Tread Ahead program at Vancouver's Windermere Secondary School. The program aims to increase the self-esteem of at-risk students through athletic and academic programs.

These days, Mr. Rymer said, counsellors have to handle more mental-health issues than ever before. Three of the students he's working with tried to commit suicide when they were in elementary school.

"When you talk about changing and evolving roles in guidance or in counselling, one of the things that we're always looking for is new ways to help kids out," he said. "… I think it's necessary for any school to try out programs if they're going to have a positive outcome with the kids."

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