With the COVID-19 pandemic bringing constant change across the St. Vrain Valley School District, students and families lack the usual engagement of previous years. The SVVSD counseling services staff seeks to improve that with innovative ways to ensure academic success and wellbeing.
The conversation around COVID is one that counseling and student services staff has had throughout the past year, according to Adam Lotito, SVVSD lead counselor and counselor at Niwot High School. The “boots on the ground'' school counselors and interventionists are tasked with identifying the needs of students across all grade levels and meet these with appropriate solutions and referrals.
We are “addressing those concerns of increased anxiety and with the pandemic in general ... trying to have that awareness in mind when working with our students and families,” he said. “Going forward, (we are) addressing the connection for the school and helping them (students) engage with their peers and being plugged in and finding that community within their schools… creating meaning out of these situations.”
Adapting to a changing educational environment, school counselors have found new ways to keep students engaged throughout the school year, according to Kristin Hefflon, student services coordinator at SVVSD.
“What we’ve noticed is that it's been more challenging for students to access the support they need when considering postsecondary workforce (options) and ongoing academic guidance and the support they need from their counselors,” she said. “Before you could just hold a meeting for all seniors in an auditorium, now you need to do it over a Webex (meeting) or Google Meets.”
As a result, counselors across all grade levels have come up with creative ways to remain approachable and keep things exciting and engaging, she said.
Aubrie Tarantino, elementary school counselor at Flagstaff Academy, has noticed the importance of getting social and emotional resources to the adults in the students’ lives.
“I typically collaborate with my families, but this year I had to get even more creative. I created an app using Google slides so that parents and guardians could access many resources. This included how to make an appointment with me, mini-lessons, social-emotional books and activities and a relaxation corner,” she said. “I received great feedback, as many adults found themselves using the tools I provided as well.”
Elementary school teachers already do much social and emotional support in their classrooms and solid relationships with students are crucial to healthy development, according to Bethany Zeranski, counselor at Niwot and Alpine Elementary schools, especially during this unique year.
“Although we have been limited in our ability to be physically in classrooms, as counselors we have been able to help teachers reflect and grow in their practice to support our students every day,” she said. “As counselors we have been able to focus our time on students who need individual and group counseling and families who need our support while teachers facilitate critical connections, foster hope and support resilience for all of our learners.”
At the high school level, teachers and counselors have also become innovative in this area.
According to Heather Patik, counselor at Skyline High School, interventionists and school administration have partnered with freshman teachers to push into classes and provide both academic and social-emotional learning, or SEL.
“It has provided a great platform to work with students without pulling them from core classes,” she said. “It also encourages a pipeline for teachers to streamline help for students they are concerned about.”
Maura Brady-McMullen, counselor at Mead High School, said the school’s counseling department has created a podcast series to better relate to students. Thus far the school has released six episodes of its “How Are You Doing Today” podcast, which have focused on individual, career and academic planning. Soon the podcasts will include episodes on social and emotional topics.
The district counts 146 school counselors, psychologists, interventionists and social workers who are “dedicated to supporting student mental health and overall wellbeing,” according to the website.
Each school in SVVSD has a full-time mental health provider, according to Executive Director of Student Services Johnny Terrell. Having a large number of mental health providers is an investment that has been growing over the past four years totaling $1,082,000 in grant money.
The ratio of students to counselors across the district is among the lowest in the state of Colorado, averaging between 300 and 350, said Lotito, which provides a “unique opportunity to do robust and meaningful work with students,” Terrell said.
School counseling programs and services include student advocacy, counseling sessions, transition assistance, support to staff and parents and collaboration with other partners across the community to help meet the emotional and educational needs of students, according to the SVVSD board policies.
“What sets us apart is our unique partnerships that we have with our community stakeholders who run this (work) well as it relates to mental health,” Terrell said. “We do teaching and learning very well at our schools, with students and our counselors and interventionists, and we know our community partners … We know they are excellent at their jobs.”
Another important aspect of the district’s counseling services is the implementation of equitable practices in the day-to-day work, according to Olga Cordero, director of student services, equity and engagement at SVVSD.
“Throughout this year we’ve been working with several schools around some equity training, and our plan is to have the summer institute,” she said, adding all SVVSD are invited to participate. “Our hope is that as we grow our mental health work and SEL practices, that we are very cognizant and very well aware to bring the nature of our diverse students into our work.”
Especially in this remote and hybrid climate, the work of counselors and interventionists has become key to identify students, families and staff members who are struggling, Terrell said.
“(We are) always looking for folks who may need that support, and then (we) continue to do what (we) do on a daily basis, and that’s supporting our students academically, getting them prepared for post-secondary readiness opportunities, meeting some of those personal needs that they have … and then connecting them to the appropriate resources in the community,” he said. “We stand ready to serve and support our students and families, our staff. Strong schools equal strong students and community.”