School-choice counselors: Your guide through the education system

Melissa Pederson, a Minneapolis mother of two, knew there was a problem when her very bright daughter stopped liking school. Teachers were frustrated with her work, despite the girl’s high standardized test scores and expansive vocabulary. 

What was happening? 

Pederson contacted Loran Meccia, director of the Center for K-12 Guidance at CollegeSphere, a locally owned educational consulting service. 

Meccia suggested an independent evaluation, which revealed that the girl was “twice exceptional.” 

“It was a good news/bad news moment,” Pederson said. 

The evaluation showed her daughter was exceptionally bright, but had some difficulty with a few areas of executive function. 

For example, she had trouble understanding some directions, but didn’t even realize that she wasn’t understanding them. Teachers saw this as defiance, and the girl was feeling misunderstood in the classroom.

The information from the evaluation left Pederson wondering what to do next. 

That’s where Meccia — a former school psychologist, classroom teacher and mother of three — really made a difference. 

“She helped me understand how to best support my daughter and also support her teachers, making a better academic environment for everyone,” Pederson said.

Meccia went to meetings at school with Pederson, talked to teachers and the principal, and, Pederson said, focused on practical problem solving. 

“She knew what to ask for, and, most importantly, how to ask for it in a way that seemed to work for all parties,” Pederson said. 

The result?

“It completely turned things around, and my daughter is excited to be back in school,” Pederson said. 

 

K–12 support

Educational consulting for college-bound teenagers has long been available to Twin Cities families looking to find the right universities for their kids. 

And CollegeSphere, founded three years ago, offers those services, including college discernment, admission, placement and career coaching.

But — as educational choice in Minnesota has grown in recent years — there’s been increasing demand for education counseling services relating to school-age children, Meccia said.

“The trajectory gets set young,” she said. “With Minnesota’s rich landscape of school choices, if you don’t get a placement in kindergarten, it can be harder to get into that school system later.”

For parents who are new to the area — or looking to buy a home — finding the right school for their children, regardless of their age or special needs, can be overwhelming. 

Options can include open enrollment,  charter schools, magnet schools, language immersion programs, gifted and talented schools, virtual/online schools, private schools and homeschooling.

Meccia often works with families on kindergarten placement. 

Though parents may live in one district, they might need advice and strategies for open enrollment in another (perhaps more desirable) district nearby. Or a family might want to find a private school — a significant investment — but they might not know the ins and outs of the local scene the way Meccia does.

“There are nuances,” she said. 

 

Making school work

Other parents seek out Meccia when, for one reason or another, school just isn’t working out for their child. 

“There are so many reasons this can be happening,” Meccia said. “Perhaps the child has a learning difference that hasn’t been identified or that isn’t being addressed, or the child is highly gifted and is not being sufficiently challenged or supported. Sometimes, there’s a style difference between a child and the educational environment.” 

Meccia helps parents figure out what to do after they’ve received a neurological-psychological evaluation.

“I can help them work within their current school environment, or perhaps find a different placement for their child to thrive,” Meccia said. “I speak the language of special education and gifted and talented education. I’m a translator, an advocate.”

Meccia’s own personal and professional experiences have deeply informed her work. 

“I’m a parent of three kids who have very different learning styles,” she said. “I’ve also been a classroom teacher, and understand what it’s like to work with a wide scope of students.”

When Meccia worked as a school psychologist, she was often limited in what she could recommend to families. 

“Now, as a private consultant, I don’t have those same parameters, so I can offer a range of options,” she said. “I can really be a bridge between the clinical and educational settings with families and educators.”

 

Melissa Pederson and her daughter meet with Loran Meccia, a K-12 education planning consultant and gifted and talented specialist with CollegeSphere, a St. Louis Park-based education counseling company. In addition to attending meetings with staff at Pederson’s daughter’s school, Meccia also meets frequently with the family at Pederson’s fabric shop, The Linden Tree, in south Minneapolis. Photo by Adaire Criner

 

College bound?

Though there are numerous college-counseling services in the Twin Cities, CollegeSphere is still finding plenty of families with teens in need of college planning and career counseling. 

With the costs of higher education skyrocketing steadily, families don’t feel like they can take a trial-and-error approach to finding the right colleges for their kids, said Kristin Edwards, the CEO of CollegeSphere and the director of the company’s Center for College Planning.

Minnesota’s student-to-counselor ratio is one of the lowest in the nation — about 800 to 1, Edwards said. 

That amounts to an average of 38 minutes of college counseling per Minnesota high school student (during their entire high school career), according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association. 

And with more than 4,000 colleges in the U.S., looking for a perfect fit isn’t an easy job. 

In fact, 1 in 3 college students eventually transfer schools, a costly endeavor for families.

In an effort to fill a huge demand for counseling, some Twin Cities schools, such as Chanhassen High School, have begun teaming up with CollegeSphere.

CollegeSphere’s official partnerships with schools and school guidance counselors can include career-development and college-planning presentations for students, discounted counseling rates and scholarships.

Edwards said families with students with special needs, learning disabilities or highly specific career paths particularly appreciate the help a dedicated college counseling service can provide. 

CollegeSphere, in fact, has a consultant who specializes in finding higher education for students with unique needs.

“There are many colleges that have great support for kids with learning disabilities,” Edwards said. “It always goes back to finding that best fit.”