The Vital Role of our School Counselor and Ensuring We Keep It

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The Critical Services Provided by a School Counselor

If you are a family who has never used one on one school counseling services, you might not be aware of all the work that a counselor does to support the emotional health of the entire school and how that impacts your child.  The counselor serves every student in the school. This manifests on three different levels:

Entire school support – by being a potential resource to all staff and families, by supporting student needs and social skill development at recess, by training over 50 students each year to be Conflict Mediators on the playground, by consulting and supporting staff with the implementation of the social/emotional RULER program, and by working at the school level to support an environment where every child feels a sense of belonging. In the unfortunate event of a crisis that impacts the whole school, such as a death in the community, the counselor will be an important member of the crisis response team.

Classroom level support – the counselor teaches social skills lessons in classrooms often in response to needs identified by teachers, and also facilitates classroom meetings. She initiates friendship groups.  The counselor works at the classroom level on behalf of a positive and respectful learning environment for all and works to overcome obstacles that challenge that environment.

Lastly, and sometimes most acutely, the counselor supports individuals at Alki. The counselor supports students in crisis, consults with and provides resource information to families, addresses concerns about friendship and bullying.  By addressing the needs of individual children, the counselor can impact the whole classroom environment. The counselor serves as a safety net for children/families in crisis, who may be dealing with issues of death or loss, domestic violence, poverty, foster care, mental illness, and/or addiction – concerns that are sometimes hidden from public view, but that all impact our community.

We almost lost our counselor this year

In previous years, the district has oscillated between providing counselors to all elementary schools, and allocating part time counselors to a very limited number of schools based on criteria that shift dramatically from year to year, depending upon budget constraints.  These changes in which schools qualify hinder consistency in relationships and programming and cause counselors to shift from school to school. Our current school counselor, Jennifer Greenstein, has been at Alki since 2014, but we almost lost her this school year because the Seattle Public School district once again changed their allocation formula and Alki didn’t qualify based on the new criteria.

Facing the prospect of losing the counselor, the Alki Elementary administration, staff, and Alki PTA assessed that this was a critical position in the school that should not be lost. Therefore, for the school year of 2016, Alki PTA stepped in and has provided 100% of the funds for this position as a fiscal stop gap to keep our counselor in a half time role. To this end, in our budget this year we have allocated $54,545 for .5 FTE School Counselor against a total budget of $172,668 for the PTA.

Community funding is not the solution. What can we do to help fix it?

If our student population stays the same or similar for next year, it is unlikely that the position will be centrally funded without our advocacy.  Alki PTA funding is not a sustainable funding solution for this important position in the school. As parents, tax payers, and key stakeholders for Seattle Public School District, we need to voice our concern over losing this position. There are three levels of administration to engage for our advocacy:

Seattle Public Schools (SPS): Each year SPS comes up with new criteria for schools for staff positions based upon the “Weighted Staffing Standard” (WSS). The WSS creates an annual formula that when applied to each school generates a funding package for individual schools for the coming year. In years’ prior, counselors were allocated mainly according to population size of the school. I.e. between 400-450 students would qualify Alki for a .5 counselor.  For the 2016-17 school year, the WSS shifted so that counselors were allocated based on poverty rates and existing school programs rather than enrollment numbers (The technical terms are a “Focus or Priority School,” “High Poverty” school or having a “Social /Emotional Behavior Program.”) The criteria for WSS changes every year. Within the last ten years, there were only two years when SPS provided central funding for .5 counselor positions to every elementary school in the district. This was one of the first staff positions cut after the recession. There is a committee each year that determines what will be the WSS for each school. Engaging with this committee may be the best targeted advocacy to regain this position at Alki and across the district. Upcoming SPS budget meetings are:

  • Tuesday, October 25, 2016 from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm at the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence, 2445 3rd Avenue South, in the Auditorium.
  • Thursday, November 3, 2016 from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm at the South Shore School cafeteria, 4800 South Henderson Street.

Other schools in the past have started a Change.org petition to maintain their counselor, collected letters of support, advocated for mitigation funds from SPS to be used for this position, and sent the letters to the Seattle School Board and relevant budget committees.

State Legislature in Olympia: Counselor positions are mandated by the State government for all high school and middle schools in the State of Washington. Due to this mandate, counselors must be maintained even in years of budget constraints in secondary schools. A similar mandate is needed in Olympia for Elementary Schools.

Federal government: In 2015, President Obama signed ‘The Every Student Succeeds Act’ (ESSA) into law to replace the underfunded No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. In the new law, there are provisions to improve school conditions including language “to provide school counseling to students.” Olympia and Washington State government needs a more congruent policy with this federal law.

We need your help!

Overall, what we can do as the Alki PTA and community is get involved, get a voice on the current WSS committee, attend School Board meetings, and engage with our state and federal elected officials.

We need volunteers to attend meetings and work with us on all these avenues! Please contact Elise Carlson-Rainer (ecarlson333@yahoo.com) or Vanessa Longacre-Wilcox (vlongacre@hotmail.com) if you are able to help.

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