George Washington Middle School counselors celebrate national award

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George Washington Middle School counselors celebrate national award
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By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)

The counseling program at George Washington Middle School joined vaunted company in late January as it was named one of 600 “Model Programs” by the American School Counselor Association.

The award — Recognized ASCA Model Program, known as RAMP — is awarded to schools that deliver a comprehensive and data-driven counseling program and a strong educational environment. The department will officially receive the award during a special ceremony at ASCA’s annual conference in New Orleans in July.

George Washington has two counselors assigned to each grade, led by director of school counseling Stephanie Smith, with each counselor responsible for half of the students in a grade. Heather Clark and Stacey Thomas are sixth grade counselors; the school’s seventh grade counselors are Bernadette Brown and Emily Boydstun, and Ben DeRigge and Kimberly Shoemaker are counselors for the eighth grade.

The counselors provide classroom lessons as well as group and individualized counseling sessions to students in all three grades on a variety of topics, meaning they spend the majority of their time out in the school community.

“A lot of people don’t know that about counseling: that the day and age and time of being in your office and waiting for a problem to come to you is over,” said Smith. “It’s not how they do their work. They’re proactive and data-driven and they’re out there and teaching lessons to students.”

Students are offered support from counselors in a variety of areas, including academically and emotionally. Anger management, coping with grief and loss and working on social skills are some of the emotional areas covered, while academic support can be aimed at helping students with Honors classes or helping them understand how to leverage their school experience for a future career.

Counseling programs also are devised with wider school goals in mind, based in part on state Standards of Learning test results. One program Smith pointed to is called emotional literacy, a nationwide project that focuses on the social, emotional and psychological aspects of literacy and is being used to help improve the school’s scores in English and language arts.

On top of that, counselors often are required to react to new situations that come about on short notice and offer support, perhaps family issues or troubles at school.

“Every day is different, every day is unique,” said DeRigge. “You walk in with a plan, but then you see students come in with a variety of issues from home that walk in, and you deal with the immediate needs first. Oftentimes, your plan when you walk in is still there when you walk out. But every day is different and unique.”

To determine the services students need, counselors perform a needs assessment. Then, at the end of a program, students are given the same assessment to see the impact of the services provided. That data then helps the counselors analyze the efficacy of programs and determine what to expand or pull back on.

“Sometimes we’re learning as we go along with the students,” said Shoemaker. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else the next time we do that same lesson and see what works best in terms of getting our message across and whatever we want to convey to the kids, [so that] the way that we’re doing our lessons is actually conveying that message.”

All of the counselors pointed to a school-wide effort to bring these services to students that mobilizes parents, teachers and other staff. Thomas said being able to build relationships with colleagues beyond the counseling service is crucial to having a strong presence.

“Once you have that relationship, the students will come to you, the teachers will approach you, and [it’s] also being a good listener,” she said. “We want to know what the kids are going through. If we’re not listening to them, how will we know what they’re experiencing?”

Looking forward, the counselors said they refuse to rest on their laurels, especially as they work with their respective grades across the students’ entire time at George Washington Middle and look to keep making use of the work they have already done.

“I came in this year, and there has been this awesome foundation in this department already laid,” Clark said. “It makes me, as somebody coming in this year, really excited for what we’re going to do in the future. It’s just exciting to think about how our students as sixth graders are going to benefit from that program that’s already been set up for them when they’re coming in as sixth graders, which is a really cool thing.”

“Just because we got RAMP doesn’t mean that what we do stops,” Shoemaker said. “We’re still going to collect data, we’re still going to do all the same things that we did to earn that award, because obviously it is benefiting the students and that’s the whole reason we’re here. We’re a support for the students. We advocate for the students, and that’s just not going to stop.”

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