School counselors helping more than ever in Indiana

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — YeVonne Jones’ high school counselor played a pivotal role in her life, and because of it, she decided to pursue the same career path and “give back.”

A school counselor “can really change someone’s life,” said Jones, who is in her first year as counselor at Sarah Scott Middle School and previously worked in Monroe County schools.

She likes being a school educator and leader and teaching students important life skills. “You don’t always see those rewards right away,” she said. Students may be dealing with trauma related to abuse, poverty, anxiety or other social-emotional issues.

“Being that go-to person in the building I feel gives peace of mind not only to school staff and parents but also to students,” she said.

Jones and all Vigo County School Corp. counselors were recognized Monday as part of National School Counseling week. Mayor Duke Bennett read a proclamation and praised their efforts.

“Clearly, the role you play is an unsung, behind-the-scenes role that couldn’t be any more important,” Bennett said. Their efforts help strengthen families, and “strong families lead to strong communities.”

In 2015, the school district significantly increased the number of elementary counselors, and today, 14 elementary schools have a full-time counselor, while four schools share two counselors. “Someday, we may rectify that, too,” said Rick Stevens, VCSC assistant director of student services, who works with school counselors.

The need for full-time counselors was identified by elementary principals. Indiana does not require a full-time counselor in each elementary school, but, “We felt it was so important to do early intervention,” Stevens said.

Family dynamics have changed since Stevens started his career in education around 1980, he said, and today’s students “have been exposed to so much more.”

School shootings and terrorist acts happen all too frequently, Stevens said. Parents have dealt with a severe recession and may have lost retirement savings. Technology and social media have transformed society, not always in positive ways.

Also, Vigo County has high rates of child poverty, with more than 50 percent of students on free or reduced lunches.

The needs “just kept growing and growing and growing,” he said.

At the elementary level, counselors implement the Second Steps program, which helps children learn to get along and be successful in school; they also do group and individual counseling.

Middle school counselors work with individuals and groups and help students prepare for high school. Students are in transition, with “hormones popping. They are trying to find themselves,” fit in and figure out who their friends are — and aren’t, Stevens said. Counselors also conduct drug awareness/prevention programs.

“For middle school students, it’s a crisis every day, if not every hour,” Stevens said.

Meanwhile, high school is a launch pad for life and post-secondary education, said Lindy Fisher, North Vigo counselor. “It’s a level we’re passionate about it,” she said. “We take it very seriously.”

High school counselors help students achieve goals they have set for themselves as they prepare for life after graduation. They also meet individually with students who may struggle academically and socially. “We really attend to the full spectrum of the students and their needs,” Fisher said, including making sure students take all the courses needed to graduate.

The district has 35 counselors serving elementary, middle and high schools, Stevens said.

School counselors also work with students and staff when tragedy strikes and lives are lost. “Those are some tough, tough, difficult times,” Stevens said, but the counselors are skilled in how to help students and staff deal with their grief.

“We lift kids up every day and we try to be positive,” he said. For some students, school may be the only place they have a good meal or receive a hug from someone who cares.

Also attending Monday’s recognition event was Jennifer Pike, Farrington Grove Elementary counselor.

Initially, she became a school counselor to help people, but she soon found that she gained just as much as she gave. “I found how rewarding it really is,” she said. Each day, she receives hugs from her students or hears about their accomplishments after they’ve talked about how to solve a problem — and the students follow through.

The job does have its challenges. “A lot of our students are from poverty, so they have additional stressors. That makes it hard for them to focus on their education,” Pike said.

Superintendent Danny Tanoos also praised the work of school counselors and talked about a traumatic incident in his own life, during which a school counselor helped his family. On Jan. 17, 2001, Tanoos was the victim of a violent crime in which someone fired a gun at him from outside his home, and a bullet grazed his head. His family was home at the time.

Dave Lotter, then a school counselor at Honey Creek Middle school, met with Tanoos’ son — then a Honey Creek student — every day to make sure he was okay, something the Tanoos family will never forget.

 

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