These days, Towson-area high school counselors must navigate growing, diverse responsibilities

During the first week of school at Loch Raven High, counselor Jessica Moody will meet with students frantic to fix problems in their class schedules. She will address freshmen on transitioning into high school and teach about digital safety and how to spot mental health issues. She will work with new students, particularly those whose first language is not English, connecting them with other students from similar backgrounds to ease the transition. And she will visit senior classrooms to talk about starting the college process.

That first week, Moody said, involves a lot of late nights; for that matter, so does the rest of the year.

“When I started years ago, you could say this job was more 9 to 5,” Moody said. “Now, this job is very much a 24-hour job. We’re on call all the time … it’s so all-encompassing.”

Counselors at Towson-area high schools say that as generalists, they are the first line of defense when helping students solve problems. It is a big job and, counselors say, the job is expanding.

Counselors’ work stretches to every aspect of a student’s life. They solve academic problems. They help prepare college applications. They talk to students experiencing relationship problems or family strife. They help connect students with mental health problems to treatment. And they do this all day, from meetings in the mornings to emails at night, Moody said.

To qualify for the job, counselors require a master’s degree in education with a specialization in school counseling, said Melanie Martin, counseling coordinator for the school system.

The job has become less of a second step for former teachers and more of a lifetime career, Martin said. That change reflects a growing awareness of the importance of social and emotional learning, and a corresponding growth in what counselors do — no longer are they just “guidance counselors” who help students with their schedules, she said.

“If you want to get under a school counselor’s skin, call them a guidance counselor,” Martin said. Today, she said, they are full-fledged “skilled mental health professionals.”

“Counselors are no longer just in their offices,” said Simon Briggs, counseling chair at Towson High School. “We’re in the hallways, in group sessions, doing classroom visits.”

“It’s a lot,” Briggs added. “But that’s OK.” The feeling he gets when a student thanks him makes it worth it, he said.

Tech support

At any given time, Moody said, counselors at Loch Raven have more than one computer running at least three programs. To catch up with the smartphone generation, she said that counselors today are always plugged in.

“There’s a lot more use of technology than there was,” Martin said.

For Baltimore County school counselors, Martin said the hub of the college process is Naviance, an online portal that helps students choose careers and prepare college applications. Today, students explore careers through answering online personality evaluations and watching videos about the world of work, she said.

To help counselors adapt to changing technology, Martin said the school system has frequent professional development training, as well as in-school technology supports.

Moody said technology has also changed how counselors keep an eye on students, especially outside of school. Counselors at Loch Raven have Instagram, Facebook and other online tools to communicate with students and to monitor posts indicating mental health issues, she said. Counselors also spend time late at night replying to emails, often responding to frantic students who have questions about things like financial aid or relationships.

"So many things are easily available through Google, but they want that second opinion about it,” Moody said. “We’ve sort of stepped into that role of mentoring.”

That easy access to information on the Internet can actually make counselors’ jobs harder by increasing student anxiety, said John Komosa, a counselor at Dulaney High School.

“Advice comes from all different places, [like] from other kids, chatting online,” Komosa said. “That’s not always accurate.”

Moody said she has noticed in the past few years that technology seems to have made students expect a “quick fix of things,” so when they have a conflict “it’s very difficult to deal with things like frustration.”

Social media itself can create emotional problems for teenagers, who naturally have a “need for connectivity,” Komosa said.

“[Social media] is a big marketing game,” he said. “Everyone is making their life sound more interesting than your life … an adult maybe understands that mechanism. But the way an adolescent mind is wired, maybe not so much.”

To deal with the challenges technology poses to children’s mental health, Martin said counselors now teach kids about digital citizenship and the impact of cyberbullying.

“As a counseling team, we’re learning how to deal with that,” Moody said of the problems she believes technology exacerbates. “We’re finding that we have to really get to know our students.”

Individualized learning

One reason counselors have to get to know their students is a renewed focus on individualized learning, counselors said.

"In many school buildings, we have an increasing number of kids on IEPs,” said Moody, referring to Individualized Education programs.

Those programs are implemented for students with educational disabilities, including autism, developmental delay, hearing impairment and learning disabilities like dyslexia, according to the school system website. The programs, which are coordinated by counselors, outline testing accommodations and other special education services.

Moody said the rise in IEPs is likely not because kids need more help, but because “more people are becoming aware that there are services out there for their children.”

Other individualized approaches, however, are becoming more necessary in schools with growing populations of low-income minority and foreign-born students.

At Dulaney, Komosa said the population of students who speak English as a second language is growing, which “can be challenging,” especially because none of the school’s counselors speaks Spanish. Though beginning ESL students are sent to Parkville High School, Komosa said the transition is difficult when they return to Dulaney a few years later – and some parents choose to forgo ESL altogether.

At Loch Raven, where state data shows the number of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch has risen steadily over the past decade, the school has added a social worker and two therapists to help take the load off counselors, Moody said.

With more students living in poverty, Moody said counselors have to pay special attention to trauma-sensitive counseling for students who had traumatic childhoods or may not have basic needs met, like food and toiletries.

Martin said that across the school system, counselors are focusing more on trauma-sensitive practices as well. Across Baltimore County, students on free and reduced lunch have risen by more than 10 percent over the past decade, according to state statistics.

"We are providing our counselors with more resources, support and training around trauma-sensitive practices, ways to handle challenging behavior and ways to help students exhibiting anxiety,” Martin said.

Towson High takes a unique approach to dealing with individual students’ problems: group counseling. Briggs said each counselor at Towson High runs at least one group for students they believe might need extra support. One group included girls from different world cultures; another was for students with anxiety. Last year, counselors held a mindfulness group that incorporated meditation and yoga, Briggs said.

“Groups are really powerful,” he said. “I can tell a student something, but it’s so much more powerful coming from another student.”

The individual attention counselors give can also help increase school safety by improving school climate and flagging troubled students, though, she said, in an era of increased focus on school shootings counselors are only one of many school officials with the responsibility to keep an eye out for problems.

Counselors across the system follow a “process and protocol” to respond to potential threats, Martin said. She declined to go into specifics, citing safety concerns.

“What I can say is that we’re constantly reviewing it and providing training to make sure that all of our mental health professionals are using it consistently,” Martin said.

The ratio

Towson-area counselors said getting to know every student is one of the job’s most demanding tasks. At each school, counselors make an effort to meet with every student in their caseload at least once a year to talk about goals and academics.

“It’s not just a hello,” said Briggs at Towson High. “We pull up their transcript, look at courses and talk about what we could do next year. It helps us to get to know our students, but also to provide them with some direction.”

The American School Counselor Association recommends that schools have a ratio of one counselor per 250 students. That goal, however, is rarely met. Across the country, only three states — New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming — had a ratio lower than that in the 2015-2016 school year, according to the association.

The association says that Maryland, on average, had a ratio of 373 students per counselor in the 2015-2016 school year.

Caseloads are “always a sticking point,” Komosa said. Dulaney High School’s ratio tends to hover around 300 to 400 students per counselor, he said, adding, “We wish it were lower.”

At Loch Raven, Moody said counselors are responsible for between 290 and 300 students. And at Towson High, Briggs said the number is somewhere between 300 and 350.

New this year, Martin said, the school system is adding a part-time college counselor to every high school to focus on college admission support.

Moody said she expects the new hire at Loch Raven to be helpful, freeing up other counselors to “deal with the social/emotional pieces.”

“On the national level, we have good-sized caseloads,” Martin said of the school system. “But we would always want to move in the direction of more support for students.”

asolomon@baltsun.com

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