Jody Rainey, principal of Homer-Center High School, admits his viewpoint on academics might sound to some a little radical for an educator.
“Sometimes students have greater needs than academics,” Rainey says. “Until we can address and remove the barriers to academic success in a student’s life, their academics will go up and down. Our job is to remove barriers that hinder students from academic and other types of success.”
Surprisingly, the school day itself might be one of those barriers.
A strategic alliance
From Rainey’s perspective of 26 years as a teacher, former coach and now an administrator, he often saw kids who needed counseling services. Various barriers, however, often prevented those kids from accessing those services. Parents’ work schedules, lack of transportation and concern of missing classes and school activities got in the way of following through with counseling recommendations. If a student did get counseling, there was the likelihood he or she would stop as soon as improvements were made, even if counselors believed the child should still be seen. Presumably, this was because it was a hassle to get to the counseling sessions in the first place.
In a strategic partnership with Family Psychological Associates, a community-based program that provides counseling services, Homer-Center successfully removed all these barriers. The referral process stays the same. There could be any number of reasons a child needs counseling: family issues, grief, depression, anxiety, poor academics or social issues. Instead of going to counseling outside of school hours, Family Psychological counselors come to the school during the school day. Students meet with these school-based counselors in a confidential, private setting.
“Many kids have therapy after school or after work hours, and they are often exhausted physically and emotionally and don't feel like talking about difficult issues,” says Mindy Allen, a school-based therapist with Family Psychological Associates. “I like school-based therapy because the kids get the opportunity to have therapy on a regular basis in school and during hours when they aren't worn out yet. In addition, for children who would have therapy during school hours anyways, this program allows them to remove travel time from the equation. For them, they are missing less classroom time overall.”
Rainey met with several qualified providers but felt Family Psychological, with its combination of availability, enthusiasm and certifications, made it a good fit for the program. There are three therapists that come to the school and have worked with more than 80 students since the program’s inception in August 2017.
Family Psychological counselors are called school-based counselors, not to be confused with Homer-Center guidance counselors such as Kristin Curci, school counselor for grades seven through 12. Curci is thankful to have Family Psychological therapists working closely with them. It frees her up to focus on being a guidance counselor emphasizing a career focus. This way, students’ full spectrum of needs are met: social, academic, personal and career.
There are other benefits, too. Students who receive counseling for social or school-related issues can immediately apply what they’ve learned in counseling.
“School-based counselors working with students on coping skills or anger management allows a student to go right into the educational setting and put into practice what he or she just learned,” Curci says. “For some students these coping skills have enabled them to be in class more.”
Rainey’s thoughts echo those of Curci. He believes students’ improved communication skills have ultimately resulted in a major change in the school culture.
“I’ve really noticed that the students who have been involved in the counseling have developed the skills to self-advocate and communicate,” Rainey says. “That’s huge. If I’m dealing with a discipline issue a student can identify exactly where things went wrong and accept responsibility in that role. Then we can discuss how to respond differently in the future. It becomes an opportunity for self-improvement.”
Embraced by the students
The program is well-known across the student body. Many students, utilizing their improved self-advocacy skills, will ask when counselors are coming for the week and look forward to it. For the students, the therapists are a reliable support system.
If there are any doubts, just ask the students. For the last several years Rainey has conducted a student climate survey. For Rainey, there is a defining question that asks if there is at least one adult that a student feels comfortable talking to and can help with academic, social or personal issues.
For most students, the answer is “yes.”
“That answer is vital,” Rainey says. “Our counseling services are phenomenal. They are part of our team.”