Education is a team effort. Teachers, parents, administrators, and pupils work together to offer students life-long learning skills necessary for becoming successful members of society. Although teachers and educational assistants may come to mind first when it comes to classroom instruction, there is another group of less known, but highly skilled professionals, working behind the scenes in Clarke County’s public schools to support students in their quest for scholarship and adulthood.
February 7-11, 2011, is National School Counseling Week. Clarke County Public Schools’ team of six professional counselors are constantly working in concert with teachers to create and implement programs that promote the emotional development of students and lead to better performance in the classroom.
“Every day is different,” laughed Robyn Harrison-Taft, the counselor assigned to Boyce Elementary School. “I come to school thinking that I know what my day will be like and it can completely change based on the needs of the kids.”
Cooley Elementary counselor, Tina Johnston agreed. “I think that flexibility is the key to our role as we work with students. We never know what may have happened the night before at a student’s home that will require our help the next day at school. We just accept that our schedules can and often do change.”
At Clarke County Public Schools, school counselors work with students both individually and in groups. Counselors often engage students in small group counseling sessions covering topics from grief to friendship, from organization to self-esteem. In addition, the CCPS counseling team provides classroom guidance lessons that focus on academic development, personal/social development, and career development.
Counselors also intervene individually with students and their families on a variety of issues.
“At the elementary school level kids sometimes show up at school in tears,” said Judy Blau, counselor at Berryville Primary. “A child cannot learn if they are emotionally distraught. I try to be on the lookout for these kinds of issues and provide support for the child.”
School counselors work with parents and other school professionals to help all children be as successful as possible. This goal often means bringing in services from outside of the school setting so that student can benefit from interaction with other community agencies. Such service offerings are often coordinated and managed by school counselors according to Katie Ruscito, Johnson Williams Middle School’s staff counselor.
“We coordinate with community organizations like CLEAN (Community and Law Enforcement Against Narcotics) and Blue Ridge Hospice to provide support to students,” Ruscito said. Ruscito said that CLEAN staff regularly provide CCPS students with drug and alcohol prevention instruction while Blue Ridge Hospice has been instrumental in providing grief and loss counseling to students.
“Several students have lost parents and family members this year,” Ruscito said. “It’s really important for counselors to help with social and emotional support so that our students can be better learners.”
The Constitution of Virginia requires the Commonwealth’s Board of Education to prescribe standards of quality for the public schools of Virginia, subject to revision only by the General Assembly. Clarke County’s six public school counselors are mandated by the Commonwealth’s educational Standards of Quality. While Clarke Public Schools provide the minimum number of counselors required by the SOQ based on CCPS’s student population, larger communities sometimes provide significantly higher counselor-to-student ratios. For example, Harrisonburg city middle schools staff one counselor to each grade level.
In many ways, CCPS’s school counselors complement and support CCPS’s educational process and play a vital role in the success of every student. Each counselor adapts her message to meet the grade levels that she is responsible for.
“For example, when I work with the kindergarteners on career development I might design a lesson using books and pictures that feature a dentist fixing someone’s teeth,” said Berryville Primary’s counselor Judy Blau. “The kids are learning about a profession while also doing things like counting the number of teeth in the picture or identifying the colors in the picture.”
One major benefit that the CCPS counseling team brings is providing students with a place to turn should home life or academic pressures become too great.
“Kids know that we offer a safe place if they just want to come and talk,” said Tina Johnston. “You’re never in trouble when you come to see a school counselor. We try to remain neutral by simply listening to what may have happened and helping to figure out why it happened.”
The CCPS counseling team works together closely even though their school locations are spread across the county. Each of the county’s elementary schools and the middle school have one full-time counselor while Berryville Primary offers a part-time counselor. Clarke County High School has two counselors. But despite the physical separation, the counseling team frequently relies on each other to determine how best to handle a student dilemma.
“We frequently bounce ideas back and forth with each other,” said Boyce Elementary’s Robyn Harrison-Taft. “Having a dialog helps us decide where best to go with our approach. I might say â€˜OK Judy, this is what I’m looking at, what do you think?’ We work hard at being accessible to each other and collaborating.” Interaction between the counselors is also important in helping students transition between various school facilities as they advance; for example, the move from elementary school to middle school.
“We see transition issues on a regular basis,” said one counselor. “But we can pass the issue on to the counselor at the next school so that they can be ready to support the child when he or she gets there.”
“We’ve got a really good team in place and we try hard to reach as many students as we can,” said Harrison-Taft.
Clarke County Public School professional counseling team includes:
Robyn Harrison-Taft MA, NCC – Boyce Elementary
Tina Johnston M.Ed., Ed.S. – D.G. Cooley Elementary
Judy Blau MSW – Berryville Primary
Katie Ruscito M.Ed., Ed.S. – Johnson Williams Middle School
Leslie Louthan – Clarke County High School
Nikki McGinley – Clarke County High School