As budget negotiations continue between the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the school district, one line item that’s a holdover from last year is the addition of more school counselors. The district requested $600,000 to create four new elementary counselors, and also expand what’s offered in the high schools beyond the two counselors currently working in the district at Kenai Alternative High School and Homer Flex. The district’s Assistant Superintendent of Instruction, John O’Brien, spoke with KDLL’s Shaylon Cochran about what role those counselors will play, if the funding is made available.
John O’Brien - If we were to get funding from the borough to meet this need, we would place two of those in the central peninsula area. We would place one in the eastern peninsula, which would cover all of Seward schools, Moose Pass, Cooper Landing, Hope and other nearby areas if necessary. And another in the Homer area that would service elementary schools from Ninilchik on down. These four councilors will not be able to be full time in any one of our elementary schools, so they would be based out of the school that we identify as having the greatest need or the greatest population. But there would be a schedule put in place where they would be going to schools on a rotating basis or as need, if a student is in crisis. So that’s our first step in wanting to address those needs. Ideally we could place a mental health counselor in each of our schools or at least our larger elementary schools.
Shaylon Cochran - At the elementary level, is the focus more reactive, sort of keeping tabs on all the things that are going on in a student’s life? At what point do you get into coping skills?
JO - I think at the elementary level, our focus would be proactive and on building skills...But we would also, on a case by case basis, deal with those crisis situations...we’re not going to change what their home situation is, but what we can change is (empowering) them with the skills necessary to cope with the trauma that they’ve experienced so they can minimize the negative impact on their learning and their life (outside school).
SC - What does this look like? Is it teaching kids, first of all that it’s okay these things are happening, teaching them to communicate and reach out?
JO - I’ll start with the disclaimer that I’m not a trained counselor...but from my limited counseling experience, there would be groups set up. Probably identified by a school’s intervention team. Each school has an RTI, Response To Intervention team, that meets on a weekly basis. They would identify students who are having issues, behaviorally, socially, and we would identify certain groups of students where this behavioral health counselor would come in and actually use a curriculum specific to addressing the needs of that student in building some coping and grit skills.
SC - It’s not really all that acceptable to tell someone going through something to tough it out, but toughing it out is a skill that, maybe early enough in the process, can be built in a little bit?
JO - Toughing it out isn’t just toughing it out. It’s understanding what positive activities, behaviors or habits of mind an individual can employ to help them tough it out. Because just telling a student to tough it out, there’s nothing they can do, may sound good, but unless you teach that student those coping mechanisms directly, through direct instruction and practice, it’s not going to manifest in any changed behavior on the part of the student. So that’s really where the experts in behavioral health would be able to identify what those groups will be working on specifically.