Jim Montague, Boston Latin School, and Helen Montague, Lincoln School

Jim Montague is Director of Guidance and Support Services at Boston Latin School in Boston, Massachusetts, a public college preparatory school serving an urban, culturally and socioeconomically diverse student population in grades 7 to 12. Helen Montague is Director of College Counseling at Lincoln School in Providence, Rhode Island, an urban independent college preparatory school for girls from pre-kindergarten through grade 12. We are pleased to feature this husband and wife team as our counselors of the month for January in the new year of 2013. Twice the advice from a duo of counselors who approach our questions from the vantage points of two distinguished educational institutions.

Boston Latin is this country’s oldest school, founded in 1635, with 2,414 students among whom today more than 40 languages are represented. Latin admission is based on a secondary school exam and a strong academic record.  “We think of them as the best and brightest in the city of Boston,” says Jim Montague.

The all-girls Lincoln School, founded in 1884, has a strong Quaker heritage as a member of the Friends Council on Education. The school’s total enrollment is 335 students -- coming from both Rhode Island and Massachusetts-- with a senior class of 33 young women. “Having a lower school and continuing through 12th grade creates a nice mix,” says Helen Montague. “There’s a lot of overlap and interaction among all the grades and as an independent urban school it makes it an interesting place.”

A graduate of Providence College, Jim Montague holds a Masters in counselor education from University of Rhode Island. After 18 years at Bishop Hendricken High School, a parochial school in Warwick, Rhode Island, he joined the College Board, where he served as Associate Director of Admissions and Guidance Services and then as Director of Guidance and Counseling Services. While there, he published a guide on the importance of early planning for college and a resource book for counselors under the College Board banner.

In 2000, he joined Boston Latin School. “I thought the greatest challenges were in the cities and with the less advantaged part of the population,” he says.  “I could have gone urban or rural but I was more attracted to an urban setting. I had done some work with Boston Latin and saw they had the raw material – students who were well motivated but needed more support to be more successful. That challenge was pretty exciting.”  At Latin today, Montague oversees all guidance and support services and staff, various outreach efforts and liaison programs with colleges, as well as a caseload of 165 students in grades 9 through 12.

Helen Montague is a graduate of Boston’s Wheelock College and holds a Masters in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy from Harvard University Graduate School of Education. A former first grade teacher, she began her counseling career on the other side of the desk in the admission office of Boston University. In 1991, she became Director of College Counseling at Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, an independent boarding and day school for girls in grades 6 through 12.

After 17 years at Dana Hall, she left Massachusetts for Rhode Island, working as Associate Director of College Counseling at Providence’s Moses Brown School, a co-educational independent Quaker day school for grades nursery through 12. Last July, she joined Lincoln School as Director of College Counseling, overseeing all aspects of the college guidance program. “Coming here to an all-girls school, I was coming back to my roots,” says Montague.

What’s it like to have two counselors under one roof? “We both tend not to have enough boundaries and the work kind of consumes us,” says Jim Montague. “But for me it’s been a blessing to have someone who understands what I’m doing and who is dealing with similar populations and students. We share resources and approaches. The danger is that we work too many hours and be too understanding of each other’s work commitments.”

Nevertheless, Helen Montague says they do actually talk about some other things at home. Helen is an ardent gardener and together they spend time outdoors at the beach and with their four grandchildren. Both are avid readers and recommended the same recent read: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. (We’ve read it, too – it’s terrific!)

Please join Jim Montague and Helen Montague here to learn more about them and take advantage of their excellent advice about financial aid, technology, applying early and more…

How did you become a college counselor?

Jim Montague: I am a school counselor not a college counselor.  In 1974, I was a math teacher who decided to pursue an advanced degree in school counseling because I thought I understood the math but did not always understand the students.  Eventually I became more interested in counseling than in teaching math.

Helen Montague: I spent 10 years in college admissions work before moving to the other side of the desk.  I loved admissions work, but what I loved most was working with the students.  As a former teacher (1st grade!), I was eager to better understand kids in their own environment and form relationships over time.  The move to the high school side was quite natural for me.

What is your motto?

JM: Be prepared (I am an Eagle Scout and this is the Boy Scout motto).

HM: Don't go it alone.

How many colleges did you apply to? And how is the process different?

JM: I graduated from high school in 1964 and worked for a year after high school.  I applied to only one college because my parents said they would only allow me to attend a Catholic college and, at the time, there was only one that would accept males in my home state of Rhode Island.  The process was much simpler but also very limiting since most of us, especially first generation students like me, were not aware of so many other possibilities.

HM: I applied to one college (early decision) and was admitted!  I believe the actual process (investigate and select college, complete and send application; wait for college decision) is similar, but the manner and context in which our students apply today seems very different to me.  My parents did not go to college, so they supported me, but did not know anything about the schools or applying.  My guidance counselor was not knowledgeable... I found my school on my own and applied!

Technology has changed everything, but it is a fact of life for our students.  They couldn’t imagine it any other way!

Do you remember the subject of your college essay?

JM: No.  I don’t think there was an essay requirement.

HM: No... But it was likely something about wanting to work with young children.

Is freshman or sophomore year too early for students to start working with their college counselor?

JM: No. Our school counselors work with their counselees beginning in grade 9 on a variety of concerns and issues including their plans to attend college.

HM: I believe there is a good deal of education that the college counselor can provide in a small group format as early as freshman and sophomore year, and we endeavor to provide this, but sustained, regular individual meetings about college-specific topics is unlikely in our school’s schedule, and developmentally, most 9th and 10th graders are not always ready to engage in these conversations.

What advice do you have for students who are contemplating going to an independent counselor?

JM: Do not engage the services of anyone without first talking to other clients of the counselor.  Talk to your school counselor to see if he or she has worked with the individual in the past and if your counselor has any concerns or advice.  At Boston Latin, we suggest that students take full advantage of all the services we provide before considering an independent counselor.

HM: I would encourage the family to understand why they believe this is necessary.  In a very small school setting such as mine, I believe it is not necessary to work with an outside counselor.  We have a straightforward process that allows students full access to our office and our resources, and we can meet as often as they’d like.  Some families seek independent counselors because they don't want to be the “heavy” - to remind the student about essays, deadlines, etc.  We are in a good position to assist in that work (keeping kids on track) but if a family wants more hand-holding, they sometimes look to an independent counselor.

What are some of the “do's and don’ts” for students as they work with their counselor?

JM:        

Do’s:

1) stop by to visit anytime,

2) check your email daily,

3) ask questions whenever you have them,

4) let us know if your plans or interests change,

5) know that we are on your side and looking out for your best interests.

Don’t assume we know what you are thinking or doing.

HM:

DO:  (1) Be honest; (2) Check school email daily; (3) Keep your Naviance account updated;    (4) Check in with your counselor regularly; (5) Invest in a planner / calendar and use it; (6) Own your own process; (7) Talk to your parents; (8) Maintain your sense of humor!

DON’T:  (1) Procrastinate!; (2) Choose a college because someone else likes it for you; (3) Don’t go it alone!!  That’s why we are here!

What advice do you have for parents who are concerned about their student’s college application process in some way?

JM: Remember that the college search and application process is primarily the students’ responsibility but they will need your support and assistance along the way.  Whenever possible offer to “help” rather than to “do” something for them.  Your child’s counselor is only a phone call or email away if you have questions or concerns and you should not hesitate to call or email at any time.

HM: I would encourage the family to talk to their child, to better understand where the child is, and determine what the issues might be.  Next I suggest they contact the college counselor to discuss their concerns.  A meeting with parent, student, and counselor can help to determine where the student is and offer an opportunity to establish a plan for forward movement.  

What is the most important thing a high school counselor can do?

JM: Develop respectful and nurturing relationships with students, enabling them to feel confident confiding in you and to be honest in sharing their concerns and questions.

HM: Listen and respond honestly, provide resources and help the student to establish a workable plan.  All of this can help empower a student to take charge and take responsibility for her own process.

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

JM: Complete the FAFSA and CSS Profile, if required, by February 1st.  Be sure that the student applies to at least one “financial safety” school, usually a state college or university in their home state that will provide a less expensive option.

HM:

APPLY for financial assistance!  I encourage families to visit FINAID.org and/or the College Board to read about the financial aid process.  Next I suggest they visit the websites of their child’s colleges to review the process and complete the Net Price Calculator (on each college’s website) in order to get a sense of what their financial contribution might be. 

Attend the financial aid night at your school or in your community.

We are fortunate to a have an excellent public resource in RI – The College Planning Center of Rhode Island – where families can get assistance in completing the FAFSA and CSS Profile at no cost.  We encourage families to schedule an appointment in January if they need assistance with forms.

If financial aid will drive the final matriculation decision, talk to your child about this EARLY in the process.  Do not wait until April!

What are the favorite books on your college-counseling shelf?

JM: College Admission, From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step by Robin Mamlet and Christine VanDeVelde

HM: College Admission from Application to Acceptance – Step by Step -- by Robin Mamlet and Christine VanDeVelde.    I recommend this to every family!

The Fiske Guide by Edward Fiske -- The anecdotal format provides a great way to get a “feel” for a school if the student is unable to visit. 

What web sites do you find most valuable for students and families?

JM:

Naviance

College Board 

HM:

The Naviance website is a must for students and families.  I also suggest the College Board (Big Future) and the ACT websites.

What is the biggest mistake you see a student make in applying to college?

JM: My biggest concern is that students often do not take as much time considering colleges on their list that are “likely” for admission as they do for those that are “reaches”.

HM:  For many students, it is not researching adequately (and really understanding why they are applying to) every college where they will apply.  Typically, students will scour the websites and visit their top choice college(s), but spend too little time getting to know about their other choices.  These are too often the less selective schools where chances for admission are strong.

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

JM: Be true to yourself throughout this process.  Colleges will appreciate your honesty and sincerity (as will your counselor).

HM: Know yourself – spend time understanding what environment is best for you, what you need to thrive intellectually, personally, and emotionally.

How do you encourage your students to broaden their college search and look beyond the four or five schools that they know best?

JM: While we know that the majority of our students at Boston Latin will attend college within 100 miles of home, we are constantly asking them to look outside the area to explore other options.  From the beginning, we try to help them recognize the many colleges that might be a good fit.  My experience suggests that colleges outside our immediate area are always interested in seeing more of our students apply and, in many cases, are looking for reasons to offer, rather than deny, them admission.  In the past five years, our students have applied to more than 500 different colleges and universities so it appears they have heard the message.

HM: In helping a student to broaden her list of colleges for investigation / application, we discuss and review the priorities the student has identified.  Seeking a balance in the list, we typically suggest that the student spend time investigating a number of schools from a range - Likely / Possible / More Competitive for admission - working to shape the list in the context of balance.  This is where I believe I can offer help – being able to suggest schools for their review that might be new to both student and parent. 

What percent of your students apply early? What are your thoughts on early decision plans?

JM:  About 30% of our students apply early but only 3 - 4% as early decision candidates.  I believe that most of our students are not ready to make a commitment to one college through an ED program in October of senior year.  We encourage them to keep their options open until the spring and suggest to most that they should preserve the ability to compare financial aid awards before making a decision. 

HM: From my very small pool (33 seniors), we saw 70% of the class apply under an early plan (23 girls filed 59 applications in total).  Of that number, 10 were ED, while the remaining 49 were EA or Rolling applications.

Regarding Early Decision plans, I believe it is a great plan for those students who have truly done their homework and know that a particular school is their #1 choice for college, and for whom financial aid is not a significant issue.  I believe EA is a better choice for more students – allowing them to get an early start, learn their decision early, but not be bound to one school.  Under EA they can also compare financial aid packages.

How can students best benefit from technology in the college application process?

JM: The most important improvement in the delivery of services and the simplification of the college application process I have witnessed in recent years has been the introduction of a service such as Naviance.   Naviance allows us to manage the application process for nearly 400 seniors each year, as well as 80 teachers writing recommendations, and provide our students with timely reminders of opportunities and obligations.  At the same time, this service helps us introduce the college search and application process to our younger students.

HM: Technology has significantly changed the way we do our business with the colleges.  Naviance has changed the nature of our work and provides a terrific opportunity for both students and parents.  For our students, technology is second nature, so they are generally savvier about on-line resources and are eager to take full advantage of the many resources available. College websites are a treasure trove of information and special applications and forms are readily available on line. The online Common App and electronic transmittal of HS credentials have virtually ended the annoying “missing credentials” cards!  Likewise, electronic transmittal of FAFSA and CSS Profile documents benefits all parties. Students easily use email to communicate with their college counselor or reps with questions and updates, and most colleges provide websites so students can check their status once applications have been filed.  Facebook allows for easy and free communication between current and prospective students and after acceptance, between newly admitted members of the class. On our own campuses, we provide resources through our school’s websites and we have easy and rapid communication with parents via email. 

What has not changed for us in the schools is the good face time we have with students.  Yes, even with email and texting, we have the benefit of working together in the same room with our students.  Priceless!

Do students who come from homes without a college-going culture or from homes where they would be the first to attend college have a different timeline or need to approach the application process differently?

JM: No, not at our school.  We provide all students with the same timeline.  Almost half of our students come from such homes.  However, students who attend Boston Latin School understand that we expect they will attend college.  Our curriculum and all of our efforts are designed to prepare them for successful college studies.  During the junior year, we provide a very comprehensive program to help all students understand the college search and application process.  This supplements and supports the work they will do with their individual school counselor.

HM: I believe that all of the benchmarks and deadlines that we have in place for all of our students are appropriate for our 1st generation students and families.  Where I diverge from the traditional plan with these 1st gen families is to insure that I schedule more regular individual meetings with the students and I make sure to communicate directly with the families.  Where language is a barrier, we work to insure that we provide information in their native language (where available). I discuss fee waiver information with students and parents early on, so that they are clear about how the costs will be covered.  Additionally, I encourage each family to utilize the services of The College Planning Center of Rhode Island (CPCRI)for completing financial aid forms, following up to insure that deadlines are met.  I have a small population, so it is possible for this follow up.

Which national issues in admissions most concern you and why?

JM: I am most concerned about college affordability.  It becomes more evident each year that the major determinant of where our students will matriculate is the cost of attending.  While many of our students receive generous financial aid awards with reasonable loans, that is not always the case.  We spend much time and energy in the spring working with students and families in an effort to insure that they not take on too much loan indebtedness.  I am concerned that this often limits the number of options our students might realistically consider.

HM: College financing issues are at the top of my list.  Increasingly large loans are being built into freshman financial aid packages (subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans along with PLUS loans) while the practice of gapping continues at many schools.  Some less sophisticated families believe they can handle this debt and others take it on because it is a student’s “dream” school.

The current increases in financial aid budgets do not seem to keep pace with increased college costs.  Even our public institutions are becoming prohibitively expensive for lower income in-state students, and the problem is only increasing.  For the poor, the working class, and middle income families, this is unsustainable. 

With jobs (full time, professional jobs) more difficult to come by upon graduation (for many grads), the salaries our young people are earning don’t provide the opportunity for a strong start…  loan payments begin in 6-9 months, along with rent, car payment, insurance payments, etc.  For many this means moving back in with parents or putting off grad school, etc. 

With so much in the news about diversity and affirmative action, was there a time in college or your career when you had an “aha” diversity moment – a time when being in a diverse environment yourself taught you something valuable?

JM: These last thirteen years of my career, spent at Boston Latin School, have been a series of “aha” diversity moments.  We are blessed with a very diverse group of talented students who are always willing to share their cultures and their experiences.  With more than 40 languages being spoken by our families and a rich array of ethnic, educational and economic backgrounds, I have learning opportunities presented every day as I interact with our students and their parents.  Most importantly, our students’ experiences are enhanced in every class as well as in their extracurricular lives by the various backgrounds, perspectives and experiences of their classmates.

HM: I learn something every day from my students in the majority white institutions where I have lived and worked.  The opportunities available in schools like ours are numerous, but many of our students of color continue to struggle to find their place in our communities. It has been instructive to understand their experiences and to understand the richness that their experiences can provide for those who come after them.  Additionally, the opportunity to work with students of color in diversity workshops for our schools as well as accompany students to Diversity Conferences has served to both inspire and teach me.

When you think of deans of admission you admire, without naming any names, what are the qualities you admire in them?

JM: I most admire those who are honest with students and parents about their chances for admission and are willing to speak publicly in support of more humanistic and equitable approaches.   Of course, I also admire those who are perceptive enough to realize that most Boston Latin School students are wonderful candidates who deserve to be admitted.

HM: There are several deans of admission that I admire greatly. They share some common qualities including a respect for the students and other professionals with whom they interact and work, an understanding and respect for the process, and they genuinely care about young people.  These individuals are highly professional and also possess the ability to laugh!  Having a sense of humor and seeing the humanity in all of us are great qualities I also admire. 

 

 

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