Making innovative efforts to help students

By Tami Silverman

A year since the process first began, the Lilly Endowment has announced which Indiana schools are receiving groundbreaking grants to implement innovative changes in school counseling. All the award winners should be congratulated for their ingenuity and enthusiasm.

We are excited to see the positive effects these innovative programs will have and are inspired by what already has been learned and gained from the process.

Last fall, the Lilly Endowment announced a groundbreaking $22 million investment aimed at sparking innovative, sustainable, comprehensive school counseling programs. The challenges faced by public and charter school districts — too few counselors and increasingly complex student needs — are well documented. The Endowment’s Comprehensive Counseling Initiative inspired districts to look beyond present needs and visualize what an ideal counseling program could accomplish.

This initiative allows districts to accelerate, broaden and/or pilot efforts to address the academic, post-secondary and social-emotional counseling needs of students. Those complex and pressing social-emotional needs came up repeatedly across the 90 school districts with which the Indiana Youth Institute worked during the planning phase.

Critical skills such as self-control, teamwork and stress management long have been part of a comprehensive counseling model. Additional pressures such as peer cruelty, suicidal ideation and parental drug addiction make a strong support network more important to student well-being than ever.

Last September, Warsaw Community Schools was updating its strategic plan. The planning phase of the Lilly Counseling Initiative dovetailed with these efforts. The district conducted separate parent and student focus groups, community-wide surveys and one-on-one conferences. Warsaw superintendent David Hoffert said “the number one thing that came out of survey work in every single group is: our kids need help. They really are struggling socially and emotionally.”

Brandie Oliver, associate professor of school counseling at Butler University, wasn’t surprised by schools’ emphasis on social-emotional needs, stating “school counselors have long understood the connection between academic, career and personal/social domains that both the ASCA (American School Counselor Association) National Model and Indiana School Counseling Competencies for Students outline.”

Yet for school counselors to have the intended impact on students, they need realistic caseloads so they can interact with both students and parents.

An early takeaway is the need for improved and increased parent engagement with school counselors across all grade levels. Last spring, the Indiana Youth Institute surveyed more than 80,000 students, parents and school personnel as part of our work with school districts. In those surveys, more than half of parents said they hadn’t spoken to their child’s school counselor during the current school year. A significant number of students said they wanted more individualized interactions with their counselor.

The impact of this educational investment already is being felt, with many school districts taking early action. Oliver says some schools are either adding to their existing counseling programs or adding counselors to elementary buildings that never had a counselor. Other districts conducted additional student and parent focus groups. And still others, such as Warsaw, introduced empathy-based curriculum in opening day faculty and staff training.

Overall, many schools reported an increased understanding of the importance of evidence-based comprehensive counseling programs. The next four years promise improved and expanded school counseling programs.

Increased achievement in academics, social-emotional well-being and college/career preparedness benefits our students, our communities and our state. The Lilly initiative has sparked renewed interest in the role counselors play in student success and helps us see the opportunities we have to work with counselors to address the complex, ever-changing needs of today’s students.

Tami Silverman is the president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. Send comments to [email protected].