Golden rules for counseling success

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College fair

photo by Christine Oliva

College fair

Counselors at Lake View High get good reviews from the school’s toughest critics—the students.

Junior Stephanie Butler recalls counselors stepping in on her behalf when she was in trouble. “They talked to teachers for me,” she says. “If they see you slacking off, they’ll come to you. You don’t always have to go to them first.”

At Lake View, counselors make customer service a priority. Though beset by many duties, meeting students’ needs comes first.

Recent figures indicate they’re making headway. Counselors estimate that in the last few years, about 70 percent of Lake View graduates have gone on to two- or four-year colleges and universities.

Lake View’s four-person counseling staff faces the same challenges as colleagues in other Chicago public schools. Each is responsible for an average of 300 students. Each has multiple duties. The freshman counselor, for instance, splits her time three ways: supporting entering freshmen, recruiting 8th-graders and chairing the department. The sophomore counselor doubles as a special education case manager.

However, the Lake View staff is a standout when it comes to teamwork and networking. The counselors enjoy warm, collegial relationships, which translate into pitching in to help each other when needed. They also take advantage of Lake View’s network of resources, including a full-time school social worker and an on-site health center.

“They’ve developed a system that works,” says Jo Thompson of the Scholarship and Guidance Association, a private nonprofit agency in Chicago that provides additional counseling services for Lake View and 21 other CPS high schools. “It’s very unusual, in my experience. There’s a real integration of services.”

Lake View also has the advantage of a supportive principal, who holds down paperwork so that counselors have more time to spend with students.

Treating kids with courtesy, respect and even affection are points of pride for Lake View counselors. “We try to be human beings to the kids,” says Steve Maras, who counsels seniors. Positive attitudes and a few “golden rules” have made the department more responsive to students’ needs.

Rule 1: Be visible

Lake View counselors don’t wait for students to come to them. They circulate daily in hallways and the cafeteria and anywhere else students frequent. They even show up at after-school events.

“I like to stay for the basketball games, Steve [Maras] likes to go to the football games,” says sophomore counselor Ron Melman, who bundles up in January to hang outside with students before and after school. “It’s kind of a natural thing. It’s good to see where the alliances are [among students].”

It’s also a deliberate thing. Six years ago, when high school advisory became a requirement, Lake View Principal Scott Feaman asked each counselor to work with one grade level and its division teachers.

That made it easier for counselors to track down and talk to students, whose lunch schedules are arranged by grade level. Sophomores eat during fifth period, for example.

Lake View stands in sharp contrast to some other high schools where “the counselors sit in their office and do nothing,” notes Maras, a 31-year veteran. “We get out in the hallways, we look for problems, we’re accessible. The kids know every day I’m down in the lunchroom for 10 to 15 minutes.”

Counselors’ cafeteria visits also help push students through red tape. In January, juniors who need to make up credits have an opportunity to sign up for night school during their lunch period. To be eligible, though, they need a referral from a counselor. In the cafeteria, junior counselor Sharee Levenson uses a hand-held microphone to let students know she’s available, then she strolls the cafeteria for the rest of the period. Several sign up.

“She comes down every day with an announcement or something for the students,” says Assistant Principal Lena Talley.

Rule 2: Get personal

With adolescents, it’s the personal touch that counts. Once a week, freshman counselor Jo Lipson, who also chairs the department, drops off birthday cards for students in division teachers’ mailboxes. “One little girl told me she hung it up on her bedroom wall,” Lipson says.

Levenson greets senior Melissa Kurzac with a big hug when she spotted her among the throng in mid-January at Lake View’s annual college fair. “Are you calm?” Levenson asks. Kurzac, who’s applying to the University of Illinois, says she feels sick.

“Ms. Levenson has been there since freshman year for me,” says Kurzac. “She helped me pass my classes, get on track. I love her.”

“This is a very child-friendly school,” says social worker Sandy Addison. “It’s the tone of the school.” Building strong relationships with students “really is the cornerstone of our work,” says Russell Sabella, president-elect of the American School Counselor Association and a counseling professor at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. “Counseling is a process of change that can only happen when students trust their counselor, when they know their counselor cares and understands and respects their needs.”

Sometimes a counselor’s own life experience builds a bridge to the students he or she serves. Melman is a veteran special education teacher and also raised a child with special needs. “I’ll always look out for them,” he says.

For Maras, going the extra mile is a routine counseling strategy. When students need extra money and attention, for instance, he hires them to work in his garden and pays $10 an hour.

Senior Alen Mesic praises Maras for helping him realize that he wants to study mechanical engineering after high school. Another senior, Enrique Vales, credits Maras for supporting his rock band by hiring them for gigs at school, even as he tries persuading him to study music in college before going on the road.

Maras insists this personal investment is part of his job. “They come in sick—go buy them tea. Wouldn’t you do that for a kid? You have to break down the barriers of teacher-student with these kids.”

Rule 3: Delegate

Principals create the conditions for counselors to work well with students. Lake View faculty and counselors appreciate Principal Feaman’s mix of hands-on and hands-off management. Although Feaman is visible, knows students personally and sets up systems to run the school smoothly, he doesn’t micromanage, they say. Faculty and staff have autonomy to make decisions and solve problems.

When it comes to day-to-day operations, “he pretty much leaves us alone,” says Melman. “He’s supportive and trusts our judgment.”

Feaman also has relieved counselors of some administrative burdens. For one, he appointed the school’s disciplinarian, who has administrative credentials, to a post that closely resembles an assistant principal. (Lake View doesn’t enroll enough students for the board to pay for a second assistant principal.)

The biggest relief has been having the additional “assistant principal” do test administration, a chore that is the bane of counselor’s existence elsewhere. “We don’t want counselors to have their valuable time taken up with collecting the tests, tracking where they are,” says Feaman. “This enables our counselors to be more effective at what they’re doing.” And that includes helping teachers and students interpret test results.

Counselors themselves are getting better at delegating. In addition to counseling sophomores, Melman is responsible for managing the cases of about 160 special education students. However, he is training special education teacher Patty Arroyo to take over case management duties. As a result, case management takes up only one-third to 40 percent of his time.

“I’m kind of weaning away from scheduling stuff [like Individual Education Plan meetings], and giving it to some of the new teachers,” he says. Arroyo will continue to teach for at least part of the day. “She’s such a good teacher; we don’t want to take her out of the classroom.”

Melman also has backup from social worker Sandy Addison, who provides individual and group counseling to special education students. Addison is on site four days a week, and supervises interns who also help with counseling.

A weak spot in the counseling department is getting more help to freshmen. Freshmen counselor Lipson juggles that responsibility with recruiting—a big job at Lake View, where half the students are from outside the attendance area—and attending off-site meetings as department chair.

Some students think she’s overworked. “I remember coming in as a freshman with a lot of questions about credits and work,” says sophomore Clifton Ellis. “It’s hard to get information from her. She’s overloaded. She should have a co-counselor, somebody to help her.”

Teachers say freshman transition could use more attention, too. Valerie Collins, who teaches algebra to freshmen, says that for freshmen, the reality of high school sinks in when first-semester report cards come out. “By the time you get your first one, it’s too late [for some to recover],” she says. “That’s how so many of them fall by the wayside.”

Adding a fifth counselor could ease Lipson’s load, but there’s no money in the budget to pay for one, Feaman concedes. “I need another counselor,” he says. “We’ll be looking at discretionary money and see if there’s enough to provide one.” A Spanish-speaking counselor would be an asset, he says. Lake View is 60 percent Hispanic.

Rule 4: Network

Feaman and his counselors know that they alone cannot reach every student. “We’re aware that four people, no matter how good they are, can’t meet the needs of 1,200 students,” Feaman says.

To fill in the gaps, they rely heavily on a network of resources, including the Scholarship and Guidance Association. The school is also one of 11 CPS high schools with an on-site health clinic.

Advisory period, which attempts to offer group guidance and is mandatory in CPS high schools, is taken seriously at Lake View, which offers credit for the class and requires students to make up missed sessions. “We view advisory as an extension of our counseling program,” Feaman says.

Counselors say advisory can provide an early warning that students need help. However, students’ views are similar to those of their unsatisfied peers around the system. Butler, the junior, says advisory is “not helpful.”

“We haven’t been doing anything,” she says. “It’s just been some free time, whatever. If you’ve got homework, do homework.”

Teachers may be finding it more useful. Counselors meet monthly with the division teachers to prepare advisory topics. In January, for example, the teachers learned how to interpret student scores on EXPLORE and PLAN, tests that prepare students for the ACT.

Beyond advisory, the Scholarship and Guidance Association pitches in to provide academic and behavioral counseling. In a typical year, SGA counselor Robert van Treeck may see as many as 60 students. Lake View counselors are “great” to work with, Van Treeck says. “They know what to watch for, they know what’s a good fit. Often they check with the kids before they refer them to me, so they’re ready to talk.”

The guidance counselors keep tabs on which services individual students are using and make sure students don’t use them to avoid being in class, says social worker Addison.

Perhaps the biggest backup for Lake View counselors is the school’s on-site health center, which includes a full-time psychologist. Mental health is among the top reasons students use the health center, which receives 4,000 visits a year.

“We do a complete social history on any student who comes in for a physical,” says medical director and physician Liz Feldman. Feldman and two nurse practitioners ask screening questions, including whether grades have dropped from the previous year and whether the student has been suspended or is frequently in detention. “If they say yes, our next question is, ‘Who’s your guidance counselor?'”

Lipson is grateful to have on-site services. In the past, counselors would refer families to outside providers, but “we really couldn’t make sure the child was seeing someone,” she says. “This way, we can take the family over and introduce them to the therapist. We can make sure they are getting some service.”