Analysis: With some apprehension, school counselors step into the Launch liftoff

Idaho Workforce Development Council executive director Wendi Secrist, right, fields a question about Idaho Launch Monday during Waypoint, a college and career readiness summit hosted by the State Department of Education.

Idaho Launch has kicked off with plenty of hype — thanks to its No. 1 fan, Gov. Brad Little.

The governor has made the rounds at high schools and college campuses to tout Launch, and the $75 million the class of 2024 can use to continue their education past high school. The flashpoint in the P.R. campaign came Tuesday, when the Launch application window opened.

Photo opportunities aside, the real work of Launch will take place behind the scenes, and over the course of the school year. College and career counselors will have the difficult job of steering 9,000 to 10,000 high school seniors through a new grant program that is a definite work in progress.

Counselors are uniformly hopeful about Launch, but some are apprehensive about the kickoff.

Mallory Essman

“I want it to work. I really do,” said Mallory Essman, college and career counselor at Nampa’s Skyview High School. “I’m just scared that this has been pushed so quickly.”

In an interview last week, before Tuesday’s kickoff, Essman described her mixed feelings. The nine-year counselor said she will always advocate for her students — and help them get as much financial support as possible — but she’s uneasy about offering advice on Launch, when she has so many unanswered questions.

For instance, she’s worried about what will happen if the $75 million runs out. Right now, any senior can apply for $8,000 for community college. But if applications exceed funding, the grants will go only to students pursuing one of the 242 occupations on the state’s list of in-demand careers. And when the nearby College of Western Idaho is the No. 1 postsecondary choice for Skyview grads, Essman says some of her students could find themselves shut out of Launch grants.

Essman also worries about what will happen if her students change their plans and goals — as young adults often do. If students drop out or choose a different career path, will they have to pay back their Launch grants? Launch is, for now, a “pure grant,” state program coordinator Sherawn Reberry said this week. But, like young adults, legislators also are known for changing their minds.

Sherawn Reberry

Reberry spent Monday and Tuesday fielding a long list of Launch questions, joined by her boss, Workforce Development Council executive director Wendi Secrist. As school counselors from across Idaho convened at a conference in Boise, Secrist and Reberry tried to walk advisers through the nuances of the new program.

After the last of five breakout sessions with counselors, Reberry acknowledged that counselors have a lot of logistical questions. But she also said she picked up on a lot of excitement in the meeting room, as counselors could see Launch finally coming to fruition.

In some cases, excitement is tempered — or overshadowed — by confusion.

“It’s a mess,” one counselor muttered to herself, as she snapped shut her laptop and left a Monday afternoon session.

Counselors from the state’s largest school district don’t want to talk about Launch — even after attending this week’s conference. West Ada School District spokeswoman Niki Scheppers would not make any counselors available for an interview, because the staff still has unanswered questions.

In a prepared statement, however, West Ada expressed excitement about Launch. “While we expect kinks and possible hurdles, as with any new program or endeavor, our college and career counselors are ready and willing to assist students explore their next steps and take advantage of Idaho Launch.”

Other counselors are talking about Launch, and with optimism.

Donna Decker, a college and career counselor at Boise’s Timberline High School, praises state officials for getting so much information out about Launch, and so quickly. “I feel like we have enough to get started for sure.”

Annie Peterson, the Twin Falls School District’s workforce coordinator, says the state has had to sift through some “muddy water.” It wasn’t immediately clear, for instance, whether students could put Launch toward four-year college; the Workforce Development Council says that is OK, as long as the coursework is aligned to in-demand careers. Peterson says she’s ready to help students navigate Launch, a versatile grant they can use for college, career-technical courses or job training. “There’s really no reason why they cannot go on.”

Katie Omercevic says college and career counselors will have to work through the new program. But when she made a presentation to her students at Boise’s alternative Frank Church High School, Omercevic says Launch resonated immediately. “Students who were, like, nose in their phone or nose in their desk, when I got to that part about how all of you could be eligible for $8,000 … some jaws were dropping.”

The opening of the application window marked a milestone for Launch — but ultimately, just one incremental step.

After all, seniors will be able to apply through April 15. Even when students do apply, counselors will have to spend time making sure students meet Launch’s other requirements — such as career pathway paperwork, which must be filled out sometime during senior year. Omercivic knows she will have to do followup through the school year, a big task in a school with 30% to 40% absentee rates.

Application numbers will be the only real Launch metric this year. It will be years before anyone will know if Launch is delivering on its promise: preparing young adults for high-paying and hard-to-fill jobs. Nothing will ever win over Launch’s staunch opponents — the hardline lawmakers who almost killed Little’s proposal in 2023 — but Little and his legislative allies will surely be watching the application numbers for signs of success.

“I just hope the Legislature gives us enough time for us to see results,” Decker said.

Essman also hopes Launch will succeed in the long term. But as she prepares to help Skyview’s class of 2024 navigate the new program, she has more immediate concerns. “We decided we wanted to do it and we wanted to do it quickly, rather than we wanted to do it and we wanted to do it right.”

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday.


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday