New District Program Removes Barriers to Academic Success
By William Woody
MONTROSE – During the course of each week Cristi Wilson, a counselor with the Montrose school district, will rotate from classroom to classroom in Montrose and Olathe elementary schools trying to help students reduce anxiety and become better learners. Her efforts are part of a new counseling initiative within the district to not only identify and help the most at-risk children, but to help all children with social skills and problem solving to remove barriers to academic success.
Wilson was one of four new counselors hired by the district in 2012 to implement a new pilot program aimed at raising student achievement by working to decrease negative classroom behavior and help teachers keep pupil focus on their schoolwork.
The program has been expanded this year to include all of the district's six elementary schools (elementary students currently make up 73 percent of the total Montrose County student population). The schools have always had mental health counselors on staff, but this new program allows all students access to counseling.
"The main difference is that we are working with all students, not just those impacted by social and emotional problems," Wilson said.
On Tuesday, Wilson was working with first grade students at Northside Elementary School, teaching them how to listen better and to cope with negative confrontations with peers by internalizing thoughts and emotions that could otherwise become a distraction – or even a possible confrontation.
"I just love working with kids,” Wilson said. “I love feeling that the work I do will have an impact now and in the future.”
Wilson, who has 19 years experience in social work, is assigned to both Northside and Olathe elementary schools, the district's top two schools in its Free and Reduced Meal program Currently about 90 percent of Northside students and 72 percent of Olathe students are enrolled in FARM, which is a gauge of poverty levels at those schools.
District Superintendent Mark MacHale, touring Northside on Tuesday, said the need for counseling at the school is the greatest among the six elementary schools in the district because so many of its students are struggling with poverty. "Some of the things these kids go through are just unthinkable," MacHale said.
According to Wilson, students today can be influenced by a number of factors, ranging from mental illness, divorce, grief and death to peer relationships and hunger, all of which can affect student achievement.
Using recommendations from the American School Counselors Association, Wilson said, the program employs a three-tier system to reach all students – and to ascertain those who are most at risk.
Tier One targets all students and staff to learn and manage emotions and solve problems. One way to accomplish this is to break the students and staff up into smaller groups for more focused attention, Wilson said; another is for teachers to offer "reminder lessons" that keep the information fresh with students.
"A lot of these lessons help us to that goal of reducing bullying and negative social actions with the kids,” she said. “When kids learn to be problem solvers, that gives the teachers more time to teach." Wilson said she and school counselors also rely on anxiety-reduction tools to reduce stress with students, teachers and parents.
Tier Two is directed at students exhibiting symptoms that cause concern, such as poor attendance, anger management, low self esteem, and feelings of grief and loss. In these cases, Wilson said, intervention may be needed to directly resolve specific issues, so the student can return to a more positive learning environment.
Tier Three targets high-risk students, who are dealing with issues including homelessness,a death in the family, stress and possible suicide. In these cases, a crisis-intervention team can be formed to not only work with the student in the classroom, but at home and with neighbors.
Wilson said both the second and third tiers involve working with parents or guardians to make sure students get to school each day. This can be as simple as providing their families with gas vouchers or arranging rides because many parents of Northside students work two or more jobs.
In Jill Miller's first grade class, Wilson's efforts are in use every day.
"We needed it badly," Miller said. "If I'm struggling, she can offer me support and ideas that can help.
Wilson said that during the 2012-2013 school year, counseling led to a 28 percent decrease in disruptive classroom behavior.
MacHale said the counselors help the district meet its larger goal of working with younger students to help them better progress through the school system and raise performance.
"There is no coincidence that student achievement is improving because we added academic coaches and counselors to help teachers and students," MacHale said. "We get one chance to set them on the right foot.”