Continuing its ongoing efforts to address students’ mental health needs, Mesa Public Schools is adding a new counselor model to better serve its students.
The district is incorporating the American School Counselor Association National Model, a “best-practice approach” that homes in on a combination of academic support, social-emotional learning and post-secondary planning.
Up until now, explained Director of Opportunity and Achievement Michael Garcia, the district left it up to individual schools and counselors to operate in the way they felt was best.
“One of the things we have the challenge of doing in Mesa is we’re large — so to provide invaluable services to our students, we have to have systems in place,” he said. “We can’t do our best work if there is not a system guiding this work.”
Garcia told the school, board last week that Mesa is among the top 10 cities in the country to have experienced the highest increase in poverty rate since 2010.
More than 81,000 Mesa residents, and nearly 14,000 families, are considered to live in poverty.
On top of this, the East Valley is seeing the highest teen suicide rate in the state.
“There is a great demand for raising awareness of what counselors actually do and what their role is,” said Garcia. “Today, counselors should be an integral part of collaborating with teachers and leadership.”
Garcia said the model is particularly effective because it expands the role of a counselor beyond a one-dimensional format.
“Counselors previously weren’t given the mission to support social emotional needs — it wasn’t formally what they were being asked to do,” he explained. “And then the elementary schools were doing a great job at supporting those social-emotional needs, but not as good of a job for the academic needs.”
He said up to now, “counselors might have been hyper-focused on one of the three areas — whether it was social emotional learning, academic support or post-secondary support.”
Under ASCA, counselors will not only focus on tasks such as finding college scholarships or writing letters of recommendations, but they will also work alongside teachers in teaching core curriculum in classrooms.
How they fulfill these roles though, will vary on the specific needs of each school.
“Ideally, we will have our counselors go to work with teachers and principals and develop a plan for what their counseling model looks like through counselor-administrator agreements,” he said.
“Which will clarify what percentage of time the counselors are going to be spending on specific tasks — their plan is going to be different for every school.”
“That is the magic in the ASCA model, it’s based on the actual needs of the community,” Garcia added. “A school where we have a high degree of drug use in the homes might require a completely different program compared to a campus where bullying is an issue.”
The ASCA website outlines examples of “appropriate” counselor services, such as tailored counseling for students who are tardy or absent, collaborating with teachers to present school counseling core curriculum lessons, analyzing grade-point averages in relationship to achievement, interpreting student records, providing teachers with suggestions for classroom management and providing individual and small-group counseling services to students.
The district has already added 37 new elementary school counselors — a move that Garcia considers a major win.
“Every student at every age — in fact, every human at every age — has needs that need to be supported,” said the director. “Although we do our best to prepare our teachers to meet those needs in the classroom, counselors have a higher degree of expertise in these areas and can provide mentorship and guidance.”
“They have the ability because they do not have a class to be responsible for,” he continued.
The ASCA model will be implemented throughout a two-year rollout.
By the 2021-2022 school year, all school counselors will be expected to have the “prerequisite skills” in order to effectively run their own programs without intervention from the district, Garcia explained.
The ultimate goal, he continued, is to have counselors ready to apply for the Recognized ASCA Model Program, a prestigious recognition program for individual schools.
“RAMP means outside evaluators will come in and evaluate our counseling programs,” said Garcia. “If a school becomes a RAMP school, then it’s distinguished among some of the stronger counseling programs in the country.”
While additional counselors are not going to “cure everything,” concluded Garcia, they are a “piece to the puzzle” in terms of producing healthy, happy students.