Helping Eagles Soar

One of many famous quotes by astronaut Neil Armstrong is, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” But when Debbie Cogan landed in eagle territory in Houston, tranquility followed.

Debbie Cogan was with the Fort Bend, Texas ISD (FBISD) for 32 years; first as a history teacher and later as a high school counselor. She transitioned from the classroom to counseling because she says it was a constant battle to show youngsters the relevance of history as it applies to the issues of the day. She already had a BA in education then went on to earn a M.Ed. in counseling. She found the one-on-one relationship that counseling provides more rewarding than being a classroom disciplinarian. She was a counselor at several schools within FBISD and lastly served with the counseling advisory team at Fort Bend’s Elkins High School.

Challenges and rewards

After retiring from FBISD, Debbie stepped onto the campus of a small catholic college preparatory school in Houston named St. Thomas High School (STHS), home of the St. Thomas Eagles. The 116-year old private high school for boys averages about 775 students annually including 190 seniors who will be graduating this year. Compared to senior class sizes of well over 500, working at the smaller school was a relatively soft landing but it still offers its own challenges as well as its rewards.

“Working with all boys is quite different than working at a co-ed school,” Debbie observed. After being a counselor in co-ed schools and having three boys and one daughter of her own, Debbie said, ”You generally see girls exhibit much more dramatic behavior while boys tend to keep their feelings under wraps. However, you have to stay on top of the boys to continually steer them in the right direction and keep them focused on their goals.”

Another of the many differences she sees is that boys need more help when it comes to writing their college application essays. Debbie says, “Boys have a different style than girls and it seems more difficult for them to reveal themselves.” The English teacher and Debbie’s staff offer guidance so the boys feel comfortable in writing about themselves as they really are so colleges get to know them.

The STHS faculty has changed throughout its century-plus existence. It once was comprised largely of Basilian priests and a few lay people but today there is only a handful of priests serving at the school. The Basilian order is known for its dedication to knowledge and teaching and therefore STHS attracts almost as many non-Catholics as Catholics.

A 100 percent entrance rate
“Since STHS provides a college preparatory curriculum, 97 percent of our seniors enroll in a four year college or university immediately after graduation,” Debbie remarked. “The two or three percent of our students who do not go straight from STHS to a four-year college are in a transition academic program such as the Texas A&M-Blinn College TEAM program.” She says her office is working on doing a better job of tracking their former students as they progress through the higher education process.

“Our alumni are most generous in helping current students. We host a career day each spring for our sophomores with at least 30 or 40 alumni participating. We have six periods per day with about six alumni on each panel.” She continued, “This not only allows our boys to get to know former students but they can benefit from each man’s advice and experience as he recounts his own path from student to occupation.”

Getting on the right trajectory
Incoming students often need assistance to get on the STHS path. “Our freshmen are coming from many different middle schools and several school systems. Although they may have made As and Bs in middle school, they may not be completely prepared for St. Thomas’ tougher standards,” said Debbie. She continued, “ We use our training and experience to assist them along with software such as Naviance™ to help with assessments and measurements of each new student’s particular strengths, weaknesses, interests, learning style and personality. This helps them adapt to our requirements more effectively.”

STHS also uses the SATs, ACTs and other testing methods to measure progress in various subjects. STHS students typically score higher than average on most standardized tests by the time they reach their junior and senior years.

Debbie and her team work most closely with parents during the first couple of years. By the time boys are in their junior and senior years, they’ve pretty well settled into the “rigor of a private education and commitment of a sport while maintaining a balanced social life” or so stated a student in an article he wrote for The Eagle, the STHS student newspaper.

Debbie says that parents, on average, seem more engaged in a private school setting. “We meet with parents as often as needed and we make sure we meet at least annually. During our junior year conferences, we work with parents and students to help plan the boy’s senior year. We also host parent nights periodically. We keep families appraised on the availability of scholarships and encourage parents to complete financial aid forms for college although we may also refer them to others who are more expert in the many nuances of financial aid should it be needed.” Debbie put all four of her own children through college so she knows the drill both professionally and personally.

Of course athletics play a significant role in an all boys school and Debbie points out that many students participate in more than one sport. “To balance out the rigor of our academics and sports, our school also has a good fine arts program,” she noted. “Our arts programs serve as a sort of release valve from the challenges of our curriculum.”

Because the school is small it does not offer as many electives as larger schools but STHS students are also required to complete 100 hours of community service by the end of their senior year and theology is a required course. Serving others is one of the principles of the Catholic Social Teaching.

“Our students express great interest in STEM careers and business, ” Debbie said. “That is logical because those are generally the fields their fathers, uncles or older siblings have pursued and these fields are often at the top of the growing careers to explore. “

Boosting helpful options
Since taking the position of counseling director three years ago, Debbie’s staff has grown from three counselors to five. The school now provides a program to educate and deter students from unhealthy choices such as drug, alcohol or video game addiction. Support is also provided for students with family issues such as divorce or an absentee parent. She explains, “There is help for any student who may be exhibiting signs of distress. For the last three years, we have had a Learning Enrichment Center that manages student accommodations and provides math tutoring. The center also helps students with their time management and organizational skills.”

Despite Debbie’s years of experience she believes there is always more to be learned and she says the value of networking with your peers is invaluable. She reads LINK for Counselors magazine and receives the LINK emails. She also belongs to a number of professional organizations. STHS encourages Debbie and her colleagues to attend workshops and conferences that will offer new concepts, ideas or information.

Although Debbie has landed with the eagles, her goal is to help them soar even higher. She would like to arrange more short-term internships for her students and collaborate more with the STHS alumni base on new projects—but those are just two things on her list of to-dos.

Connie Voss has been writing professionally for over 40 years. Her body of work includes a wide range of technical articles and human interest stories. She researched and wrote St. Thomas High School in the 20th Century an account of the first 100 years of a well-known Houston, Texas boys’ school. She writes a monthly column on advertising and marketing and assists a variety of industrial firms with their advertising communications.