Shenendehowa's Counseling, College and Career Center deemed one of six top H.S. counseling depts. in the U.S.

by Alan Wechsler

On Board Online • September 18, 2017

By Alan Wechsler
Special Correspondent

About 10 years ago, the staff at what was then called the Counseling Office at Shenendehowa High School noticed that parents were calling and asking questions about college applications. In the 11th grade, students are asked to write an autobiography as part of working with the counselors, and staff noticed that those essays were also often coming from the parents.

"It started getting our attention that parents were taking over the process," recalled Jan Reilly, who has been a counselor in the Saratoga County district for 20 years.

At the same time, the counseling staff noticed that students were becoming more anxious and stressed. More students seemed overloaded with AP and honors classes, or from joining clubs they didn't particularly care about because they thought it would help with college acceptance. Many weren't getting enough sleep. Most alarmingly, there were increased instances of students with depression or even suicidal thoughts. And the number of students hospitalized for psychiatric problems, though rare, had also gone up.

To counselors, this called for a change in the way the office operated. Even the name.

Today, the school's Counseling, College and Career Center has been recognized for excellence by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). The school was among 104 schools to receive the Recognized ASCA Model Program (RAMP) designation. Since the program started, ASCA has recognized more than 700 schools around the nation for their superior counseling program.

In addition, Shen was named a School of Distinction - an honor awarded to six schools in 2017 that exceeded the average RAMP standards, according to ASCA. Shenendehowa High School has about 3,000 students, scattered among two buildings - the ninth graders are located separately from sophomores, juniors and seniors.

RAMP recognizes schools that are committed to delivering a comprehensive, data-driven school counseling program and an exemplary educational environment, according to ASCA.

In the United States, the guidance office dates back to the early 20th century, with the vocational guidance movement, where staff would help guide students to prepare for a career once they graduated. College counseling began in the 1920s and '30s, but the modern guidance office didn't start until after 1957. That's when the United States began to invest heavily in education after the Soviet Union surprised the world with the launch of Sputnik.

The term "guidance counselor" has been out of favor for a long time.

The role of counselor has gotten more complex, said Paul Ripchik Jr., associate principal at the high school, who supervises the counseling center. "Years ago, the role of the counselor was much more limited and at times that caused complaints and sometimes misunderstandings," he said. He referred to a cliched complaint from successful people: "My guidance counselor told me I wouldn't turn out to be anything, and look at me today."

In the past 10 years, Shen's counseling center has been rebranded to embrace the model espoused by ASCA. Today, the counseling center focuses on student wellness as much as it does on college applications. Its Facebook page, now with more than 700 followers, is full of links to articles about mental health, computer overuse, getting more sleep, safe social media use, the teenage brain and the like.

Shen's counseling office saw many changes in the past few years, starting with its physical appearance. With the philosophy that it should be a welcoming place, the outer office was completely redone - new paint job, computers for students to use, even a part-time therapy dog. Students who meet with counselors are handed a "how-can-we-improve?" survey card when they exit.

The office also invested in a college application software program known as Naviance. The program helps students search for schools and manages the application process. Through its use, Ripchik said, students have doubled the amount of applications they send out. It's also helped get students as young as middle-school age to think about setting goals and identifying interests and aptitudes.

"It's a busy place," Ripchik said of the office. "Especially when the dog's here." The therapy dog is actually his - a golden retriever named Madison, which Ripchik brings in three days a week.

One of the biggest changes is the increased use of data to inform decisions. Today, staff looks at data points to find student trends that need addressing, such as attendance records, behavioral records and academics.

For instance, a few years ago counselors identified 25 eighth graders who, according to their grades, seemed to be on a path that could lead to repeating classes and dropping out of school.

Counselors developed a plan for these students in ninth grade. They were moved into a single homeroom, as well as a structured study hall to encourage greater class success. They were also exposed to career and technology education, and made aware of the district's vocational program - all with the idea of keeping them more invested in education.

The approach worked better than expected; all but one student moved on to the 10th grade. The extra attention continues today for ninth-grade students with GPA issues, Ripchik said.

Also, the counseling center has launched student internship programs for a new alumni outreach program. The interns are charged with finding new ways to involve alumni in Shen. They've launched a web page, a networking database and an alumni newsletter. Interns even run a booth at high school football games to reach out to graduates.

The school also arranges tours for former students, and is looking for new ways to link students with alumni working in a student's future field of interest.

Reilly, one of Shen's most senior counselors, started the Facebook page. At the time, she had recently read the book "The Gift of Failure" and was inspired to pass on the message. The book, by bestselling author Jessica Lahey, is a guide to building balance and resilience in children by giving them the space to learn from failure. Reilly got in touch with the author, who agreed to lead a Skype-powered discussion with counselors on her work.

Despite the national award, Reilly noted that the day-to-day job of being a school counselor hasn't changed all that much. "It was a nice honor," she said of the School of Distinction designation, "but we're most proud of what we do day in and day out. That's just the cherry on top."

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