McKinney, TX - On Thursday, August 12, some 23,500 students arrived on McKinney ISD campuses with new schedules in hand, and began navigating their way through cafeterias, corridors and gyms to their first period destinations to start the new school year.
As students have worked through the first days of 2021–2022, those new schedules have become familiar daily routines. Creating them is a remarkable annual undertaking that lands thousands of students at 30 MISD schools in the right classes at the right times.
Technology helps, and a good portion of the student scheduling process is automated — but, not all of it. There are a host of students who need specific courses at specific times that have to coordinate with the rest of their schedules—AP, dual-credit, electives, core subjects, athletics, band, choir, and so on.
Behind the scenes, making it all happen, are office staff, registrars and school counselors. McKinney North High School Counselor Debra Fort is one of the key people each summer who helps maneuver the final pieces of the scheduling puzzle into place at North. It’s one of the many hats she wears as the team lead for the guidance and counseling department on her campus.
She is really good at her job. So, it came as no surprise to those who know her when she was named the 2020–2021 MISD Counselor of the Year this past May. Even if Fort herself was caught a bit off-guard.
“I was really shocked and honored because I honestly did not put myself in the same category as previous recipients,” Fort said. “It’s nice to know that the things that you’re doing daily just because you love what you do are noticed at the district level. I was surprised and humbled.
Jennifer Akins, MISD Senior Director of Guidance and Counseling said, “One of the things that’s special about Deb is that she is really, really good at working within her team as a leader. She does a really good job helping that team work together. She builds consensus really well, and that allows them to be a really high performing program.”
Over the course of a career spanning 28 years, Fort has served as a school counselor for 17 years and has been at North for the past 10 years. She leads a contingent of five house counselors, as well as a part-time and full-time IMPACT counselor. Each house counselor serves about 450 – 500 students. That’s a lot of students to connect with.
Understandably, the school year is a whirlwind of busyness for Fort and her colleagues. They are responsible for a broad range of services that are part of the Comprehensive School Counseling Program mandated for school districts by the state of Texas. Counselors implement curriculum that helps kids learn how to develop coping skills and healthy relationships and prepare for college and career. They lead out on substance abuse prevention initiatives and suicide prevention, provide professional development for teachers and staff, help establish campus procedures and serve as a resource for teachers and administrators. And, they provide support for students and families in a variety of ways that may include crisis intervention or connecting a student’s family to community resources.
The summer months present their own brand of busyness. High on the list of responsibilities are those schedules that students arrive with on the first day of school.
There are myriad moving parts and variables to grapple with. Fort typically tackles selective programs early on, those classes that students apply for or try out for, such as cheerleading, drill team, fine arts, PALS and programs like AVID and sports medicine. “I have a giant spread sheet to see who’s approved for those classes,” Fort said.
Then there’s dual credit. As students navigate the complexities of a schedule that includes college courses, Fort and her colleagues make sure that students are registered in the correct courses at Collin College. If they are not, the counselors are there to help get them on track.
“We have to find those mistakes, and then we need to move them into classes,” Fort said. “Then, I may get an email from Collin [College] saying, ‘There’s low enrollment in this class. We’re collapsing the class,’ so that means we need to move kids into other sections. Then, we’ve got 10 kids that we need to find a course for, so they can take part in dual credit.”
There are students who request courses that conflict. “You’ve got your double blocked CTE courses like health science, cosmetology or audio/visual production.” Fort said. “If you’re taking one of them it may conflict with, say, AP physics C. Which one is most important to you?” All of these decisions must to be weighed against a student’s credit needs and graduation plan.
It’s a lot of work.
But, the key to everything that Fort and her fellow counselors do—whether it’s wrangling schedules in the summer or helping a student work through challenges during the school year—is connecting with students. Fort said that the structure of the house system at MISD high schools helps enhance that effort, allowing them more time to build relationships with students.
“Through the house system, students are assigned to a counselor based on their last name,” Fort explained. “This allows us the opportunity to follow the same students over a period of four years, and we are able to build relationships with those students and their parents. Over the course of four years, we oversee students’ academic needs, social/emotional needs, college and career planning and help them with the overall college and scholarship application process. They learn that they can count on us year after year, so that fosters a higher level of trust and confidence.”