By KATHY CHANG
School counselors wear many hats — from being the go-to person for advice in determining the path beyond high school to the shoulder to cry on when tragedy strikes.
“The role of counselors in the school district is very critical,” said Jim Lukach, executive director of the New Jersey School Counselor Association Inc. (NJSCA).
Described as unsung heroes in schools, the work of a school counselor is multi-faceted. They are responding to student needs, helping them work through emotional challenges, providing those at risk with supportive individual and group counseling, assisting them in developing future college and career goals and coordinating service to students.
Lukach, who served as a middle school and high school counselor from 1980 to 2000 for the Matawan-Aberdeen School District, said a school counselor is involved with every single student in the school district.
He said there are three concentrated areas of a school counselor — academic/vocational areas, social/emotional and career-college readiness.
“Today’s counselor is involved with all aspects of student achievement throughout their academic career as well as the emotional development needs that accompany it,” he said noting that there has been a recent big push with college and career readiness in all grade levels.
Lukach said in the elementary schools the counselor may spend time in the classroom developing social and emotional skills; in middle school the counselor would continue to work in the classrooms on the development of the student; and in high school counselors would develop programs to work with students on their goals and course selection, preparing the student essentially for after high school.
“The counselor’s time is directly or indirectly servicing the students,” said Lukach, explaining that direct contact is either one-on-one with students or in small or larger group settings in the classroom. “For indirect contact, it’s the counselors talking to parents and administration about college, setting goals and making decisions for what is best for the students.”
Dr. Diane Braungard-Galayda, supervisor of guidance for the Edison Township School District, said they have 40 regular counselors and four college counselors in a district of 11 elementary schools, four middle schools and two high schools.
“The primary function of a guidance counselor is to help students achieve personal fulfillment by providing them with guidance and counseling services to make successful personal, education and occupational life plans,” she said.
She said the elementary counselors provide a variety of support systems beyond the realm of mental health including monthly lessons for each grade on Character Education — Respect, Trustworthiness, Fairness and Citizenship, and counseling groups on friendship skills, social skills and conflict resolution.
For the role of middle school counselor, Braungard-Galayda said that the counselors provide a wonderful and beneficial transition program for fifth graders who will be entering the middle school in the fall. The program assists students in learning their way around the building and it also helps to eliminate their stress when entering a new school.
The middle school counselors continue to perform classroom lessons in each grade on character education and work with each grade in Naviance, which is a college program to prepare students for college and career readiness.
Many of the counselors provide support groups for students such as the Girls Empowerment Group, Social Skills group and in many cases a bereavement group when needed.
The role of high school counselors is not just providing emotional/mental support, but also working very closely academically with their students, said Braungard-Galayda.
All counselors provide freshman students with personality and learning skills assessments, which let the students understand what careers fit their personalities best and what would be their best learning style.
All counselors hold class meetings with their students to start preparing them for their future majors and careers.
Like the middle school level, counselors also provide group support that includes social skills, anger management, transition groups as well as bereavement groups when needed at the high school level.
“Our counselors work closely with their parents and provide parent meetings, after-school programs, as well as nightly programs,” said Braungard-Galayda.
The New Jersey Department of Education has approved the NJSCA School Counselor Evaluation Model to appear on its list of approved evaluation models in the state. The Department approves and supports the voluntary use of the counselor evaluation model developed by the NJSCA. It is a model that has been thoughtfully constructed and recognizes the scope of work that counselors perform.
“The approval allows for accountability for the success of the students,” said Lukash.
The NJSCA, a chapter of the American School Counselor Association, has 1,800 members. The association provides continued professional development for certified counselors and also provides support, networking and a watch on legislative issues, all important in meeting the needs of school counselors in New Jersey.
NJSCA was instrumental in having the New Jersey School Counseling Initiative funded and the National Standards for School Counseling Programs written into the New Jersey Department of Education Administrative Code ensuring that all districts provide a comprehensive developmental school counseling program in kindergarten through grade 12.
Patricia Callander, assistant superintendent of pupil services in the Howell Township Public District, said not only are school counselors the first line of support in the social and emotional well-being of the child in terms of counseling, there is the whole academic side to ensure success in the classroom.
Callander said the Howell School District is a K-8 district comprised of 10 elementary schools and two middle schools with approximately 6,000 students.
There are 11 school counselors as well as student assistance counselors (SACs) who assist the counselors with substance abuse and related intervention services.
The counselors in the district are all bullying-prevention specialists.
Callander said the school counselor is also a liaison to the student and their families if they are homeless, which may occur if a family experiences financial hardship or circumstances involving domestic abuse.
“There are more of [these instances] than ever before,” she said adding that these cases are brought to light from parents or if a teacher notices something that is off, they will notify a counselor.
Callander said counselors are also grief counselors when tragedy strikes, whether it is a loss of a parent, sibling or even a classmate.
“The counselors do what they can to refer agencies when these types of tragedies occur,” she said.