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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

School Counselors Report Staff Additions Have Strong Positive Impact

Elementary, Middle School and High School counselors (l to r):Britane Bednar, Ann Listerman, Erica Thomas, Lori Maines, Trinity Walsh, Laura Schnitzler, Whitney McKay, Shauna Luebbers and Rachel Caswell.

By Robin Gee

For the 2018-19 school year, the Fort Thomas Independent School District added two new full-time counselor positions, one at the high school and one at the middle school, taking the combined counseling staff at the two schools from four to six.

During presentations at the January school board meeting, counselors from both schools praised the board for its foresight and support.

Enhanced direct service to students at the high school

Highlands High School counselors reported that direct student contacts increased 200 percent in the first half this year over data gathered only two years ago.

"With the addition of a fourth counselor [at the high school], we’ve been able to highly increase what we’ve been able to do with our students," said high school counselor Laura Schnitzer.

She and the other counselors said having the new position allowed them to reorganize, a move that has enhanced the direct services they’ve been able to provide students. The new division of labor means counselors are able to focus on designated groups of students, following the same cohort from ninth through 12th grades.

The students are divided alphabetically among three counselors: Schnitzer has students with last names from A to G, Ann Listerman serves students whose names start with H through P and Erica Thomas works with students Q through Z. The increased staff also allowed the opportunity for counselor Trinity Walsh to take a new position as career and college counselor for all the students.

"With Trinity, if our students have college or career questions, we have her as an additional support. Now we can say every student has two counselors, not just one," explained Schnitzer.

The counselors installed an iPad in their office starting in March 2016 and asked students to check in and list their reasons for their visits. The numbers tell an impressive story.

In the school year 2016-17, the breakdown of students accessing counseling services was: 42 freshmen, 98 sophomores, 105 juniors and 79 seniors. In the first half of this year, from August to December 2018, the numbers show a marked increase: 153 freshmen, 98 sophomores, 102 juniors and 362 seniors have accessed services so far.

A comprehensive approach and increased collaboration

Although the counseling staff has had access to portions of Naviance, a college and career exploration software, this year the schools added a districtwide version of the tool. Listerman said the enhanced program has allowed better collaboration between middle school and high school counselors.

"We now have a district plan that we can utilize on many levels," she said. "What that means is we have met with [middle school counselors] Lori and Britane to come up with a comprehensive plan."

With this collaboration, counselors have been able to provide planning from sixth through 12th grades. She shared a chart that outlined activities of counselors at both schools highlighting examples of cooperation and districtwide planning.

Counselor Thomas said increased collaboration made possible by Naviance and the new positions has had a strong impact on the transition process from middle to high school.

Meeting and working with incoming freshmen and their parents has been a favorite part of her job. "I get to meet parents and get to know students even before they walk in the building. So, one of the biggest takeaways from this for me is we are building positive and meaningful relationships with our students and their parents…We are able to divide appointments based on the students’ assigned counselor so every one of my new students will have already met me," she said.

"Now new students can have a plan that aligns with their career and college interests, and they can select courses that are aligned with that…creating an interactive plan that students can alter and modify as their needs change through their high school experiences.

A student space for career and college planning

Walsh’s new duties allow her to devote time targeted to career and college planning. A recent survey of Highlands alumni indicated that students wanted more career planning and valued counselors for this as well as other services.

Walsh has been with the Fort Thomas schools for 10 years and said changes have been immense over time but especially in the last year. "I am grateful we have been able to restructure in the way that we have. What I’m doing this year has become more meaningful to me as a counselor," she said.

The staff also was able to dedicate a classroom to be a College and Career Planning Center. While she is there for the students, Walsh says its truly the students’ space. She has several students who are there every day, during lunch and even after school. Students can use the space to meet with college recruiters, allowing her the opportunity to sit in and help with those meetings if needed.

Her new position also frees her up to take advantage of new opportunities and plan more for the future, she said.

"Coming up this spring before ACT, there will be prep sessions...and lunch and learn sessions as well. But one of the most exciting things for me happened a few days ago – Wintercon."

Wintercon, in its third year, is a full career and college planning event. This year, despite bad weather, the turnout was impressive, said Walsh. "We had different sessions, including college planning, the trades, career pathways, military options, test prep, financial aid, social/emotional needs and scheduling. We had 44 booths at the academic and career fair portion that included colleges and industry leaders."

The event also featured a former student and parent panel that shared their college experiences. The event also showcased culinary students who provided lunch and business students who opened the school spirit store during the event.

"This spring we will do some career exploration, and I already have several industry leaders signed up to give presentations," said Walsh. She said she is pleased her new position gives her more time to meet with parents and students and to provide them with more research and planning.

Middle school counselors increase accessibility

The addition of another full-time counselor at Highlands Middle School has doubled the capacity of the department. Previously, counselor Lori Maines was on her own although she had part-time help last year from a counselor with the Northern Kentucky Children’s Home.

"She was a huge help to me," said Maines. "…but it is so much different this year having someone in the building with me five days a week. Talking with her for the first time, I knew this was going to be a great school year."

Britane Bednar is the new full-time counselor. She said the first challenge was deciding how best to organize caseload. The counselors decided they would each follow the same group of students for two years and share the eighth grade.

Maines worked alone 12 out of her 14 years with the district, and it took its toll on her time and availability. "The one thing I felt guilty about the most was not being able to be accessible all the time. I was in the classroom a lot teaching so I was not in the office. When a student came in, a lot of the time our assistant principal or principal would have to carry that load."

This year, things are very different. "I cannot think of one time this year that one of us has not been in the office," she said.

Bednar said she agrees with the high school counselors on the value of Naviance and on districtwide planning. She highlighted some of the things she and Maines have been able to do this year.

"We wanted to focus on the concept of diversity, so started diversity awareness each month with a different awareness topic. So far we’ve done Native American heritage, Hispanic heritage and we are getting ready to do Black History."

The counselors hosted a parent diversity night that brought 35 parents to meet and speak with the head of the Northern Kentucky NAACP. More events are planned for the spring, she said. 

Mining data to plan programs and services

Bednar said she and Maine have had more time to gather and respond to data. "We’re doing increased program evaluation. I come from a very data driven background, so we are able with a bsecond person to hone in on some things and dig deep into data," she explained.

One example is the recent needs assessment. Bednar discovered sixth grade students wanted help with anxiety and study skills. She was able to include those topics in her classroom sessions.

"We’ve been collecting data on our homework huddle program and academic Friday program and have made some changes throughout the year based on what we’re seeing with those," she added.

Bednar read off a list of what the new team has been able to accomplish this year including bullying prevention programming, Naviance lessons, diversity sessions and more. She said accessibility has been key.

"We’ve done one round of counselor chats in which we met with every student in our caseloads individually. We set goals with them and are getting ready to meet with them a second time…Having a second counselor, we are so much more available...there is always someone there to talk to and that really helps build relationships," she said.

Both counselors agree that what has changed the most has been the ability to be more accessible and available to students, parents and teachers, and to have time to gather and use data to improve or create new programs.

Superintendent Karen Cheser praised the counselors for all the work they are doing. "I think that when we presented this idea of adding counselors to meet those needs last year, you guys have far exceeded what we were expecting.

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