PAWTUCKET — When George McLaughlin was hired as Tolman High School's Guidance Department Chair back in September, he admitted he felt excitement about starting something new, and disconsolation at resigning from his previous position.
In his last job, McLaughlin — a 60-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y. native — served as a Central Falls High guidance counselor.
“I was ambivalent about it, really,” McLaughlin stated while relaxing inside his school office on Monday afternoon, the start of April vacation for teachers and students. “I was elated to get out of a prison-like atmosphere that had been created at Central Falls High School, but I also was simultaneously saddened.
“I was leaving a a place where I — we — had done so much work; it was a familial environment,” he added. “It was like a big family at C.F., and I felt sad about leaving. Still, I'm thrilled to start something new at an urban high school, which coincidentally is only about a mile away.
“It's a much bigger school here, as we have about 1,300 students, so I knew that would be a challenge. I also knew I'd be overseeing five colleagues in the department. I was hoping I'd be able to begin the kind of ground-level initiatives for positive change in a new place, the same types I had achieved at Central Falls.”
Since the school year's start, McLaughlin has addressed a number of his “agenda” items, and one of the most important was establishing a college fair, which Tolman never before had held. The event occurred at the James W. Donaldson gymnasium on Friday, April 8, and approximately 35 colleges, universities and technical schools took part.
“We were hoping to create stronger ties to regional and national colleges and our students, and we used the fair as a catapult,” McLaughlin noted, adding he had plenty of help from fellow counselors Jane Renza, Michaela Frattarelli, Robert Jackson, Linda Gifford and Donna Rossi (the guidance secretary).
“It was highly successful, as the entire junior class and a part of the senior class, those that were undecided, went to it. Some of those seniors were still pondering about whether to attend a community college or a four-year school, or putting it off to go to a technical training institution. I know some kids were feeling a certain kind of manufactured shame, doubting whether they wanted to immediately want to go to college.
“I think there's an atmosphere at many high schools nowadays where students may not want to go to school immediately, with money naturally being an issue, or they may not want to go ever,” he added. “Having a technical school at a fair allows students to feel that their point-of-view has validity. It allowed them to talk to those representatives and think about it as a viable alternative. I don't know exactly how many students decided on schools due to the fair, but I do know it was a lot.
“We got a lot of feedback from students, teachers and counselors that kids had decided to at least explore opportunities they hadn't considered before. I had kids coming to me stating they had applied to Bristol Community College, or that they didn't know a school like MTTI (in Seekonk) even existed. The same goes for New England Tech or the College of Mount St. Vincent in New York City.”
He revealed the school now will conduct similar college fairs twice a year, in the fall and spring.
McLaughlin also chose to streamline the process for students to see their individual guidance counselors. He indicated he created a “pass” system, where a student could make an appointment with their counselor, and — within 24 hours — a pass would be delivered to the student's classroom.
“The purposes were to have a paper trail so we'd be much more accountable for the number of kids we've seen; know how frequently we've seen them; and also so the kids would know there's a way that works for them,” he said. “They now understand they can see that counselor at any time during the school year.
“It shows we're accountable as counselors, and also teaches students they should be responsible for making appointments and keeping them,” he added. “Let's put it this way: The day you get sick, you just don't show up at the doctor; you call and make an appointment.”
He mentioned, even before the organizing of the fair, he proposed a weekly guidance department meeting, one that included the THS administration, school resource officer (Robert Cardente), school-based vocational coordinator (Sheila Hoogeboom) and any other department head or teacher who felt they needed an issue discussed.
“Not one day goes by where we don't see at least one crisis with a student or teacher,” he offered. “These meeting allow us not only to put out the fire, but prevent fires in the future.”
As another initiative, McLaughlin incorporated a regular-scheduled assembly program for freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. In those assemblies, guidance counselors educate students about topics such as bullying, academic and job preparation, family problems or peer mediation, which he called “how to help kids who are your friends.
“We'll have guest speakers come in, as well as teachers, guidance counselors and other people to talk to them,” he said. “We'll have an assembly every two-three weeks. We also have an advisory period, and we let the students know our guidance department and other services are available to them. It facilitates in students taking advantage of such services, those of which they may not be fully aware.”
Among those services: School breakfasts, meetings with the school psychologist or social worker or even making college or technical school visits, those set up through guidance. The counselors also inform the kids about extracurricular activities, such as athletics and school clubs.
“What's the backdrop behind all this? What joins all these efforts together? Good will,” McLaughlin grinned. “That's the reason I left Central Falls High, because I saw that the good will was being destroyed. We have an abundance of that at Tolman High.
“When you strengthen good will that's already there, it definitely builds morale, and — when that morale gets stronger — everyone does more, works harder,” he continued. “The kids, teachers, administrators, parents and counselors, everyone is willing to do more. I know this because I have a base of over three decades of experience in education.
“I saw it work at Central Falls High, and I see it working again here. The morale in our guidance department is sky-high. I think, in the beginning, there may have been some trepidation about me coming here, and I had to prove myself. I think I'm partially there. I remember, in our first meeting, I told them half my job was to make sure they did their jobs. The other half was, when they did their jobs, I'd make sure everyone else knew about it.
“That builds morale; of course, everybody needs to be recognized, and to feel protected from false criticism when they go above and beyond the call of duty.”
McLaughlin brought with him a ton of experience. He graduated from Queens College in New York City with a Bachelor's in English Literature (where he minored in secondary education), and gained a Master's in English Literature from Rhode Island College in 1986.
His resume revealed he gained his first job at the Zenadelphia School, a facility for runaway boys in Boston; his alma mater, John Jay High in Brooklyn; a Brooklyn drop-in center for teens; and the Rhode Island Training School.
He also worked at Marathon House, a therapeutic community for addicts in Providence, and at Queens College. In 1996, he achieved a certificate of advanced graduate study from Fordham University; he called that a “fancy term” for achievement between a Master's and doctorate.
He took a job as an English as a Second Language instructor at CFHS in 1995, then became a guidance counselor exactly five years later before moving to Tolman.
Next on his list of initiatives: Expanding THS student visitations to colleges. He hopes to put that in place this fall.
“We've already instituted, and will continue to expand, our SAT and ACT exam preparation programs,” he stated. “In fact, we just held a free SAT test after-school session that's run by the Princeton Review. We had about 60 kids attend for the first time, and that's about a quarter of our junior class. It was for those students thinking, 'I need to know what it's going to be like.'
“To their credit, Princeton Review representatives scored all of those practice exams and returned them to the students so they knew what they would've received for a grade,” he added. “We're also doing similar things for the NECAP exams, which are required by the state. That's so students will know the format for them, like the time constraints and possible strategies for how to approach each exam.
“We're just beginning that now, and the focus is all about lowering test anxiety. It's never been at Tolman before in this formalized way. A significant part of success in these tests is coping with psychological and strategic preparation. It's not just about knowledge.”
He's even in the process of creating a scholar-athlete education program.
“We have many students who are athletes, and they know little about the hybrid world of academics and athletics in college,” he said. “What we're doing now is trying to educate athletes about the whole process of a college application and athletic recruitment. We want to educate these kids about what it takes to be a great college athlete and student.
“Some kids don't realize how important it is to have a good GPA, so we're going to tie that information into the assembly program. We'll bring in college athletes and coaches to speak about how they excel in both arenas.”
McLaughlin promised he's very happy at his new job.
“I knew right away that people appreciated my bizarre sense of humor, so I knew there had to be something good about the folks here,” he laughed. “There's a willingness in this district to entertain new ideas, and let the teachers and guidance counselors run with them. They give you enough room to assess whether these ideas are working as we institute them.
“The hallmark of our office is mutual respect for the students, teachers, parents and administrators. That's what I'm trying to enforce. Actually, we've already got it. I'm just trying to make it stronger.”