Anxiety, depression, impulse control, broken homes, peer pressure, drug use at home, parents in jail, housing and food insecurities.
These are issues some Brown County students deal with on a regular basis, say counselor Terri Whitcomb and building principals.
With a ratio of 1 counselor to every 425 students, some students may not be getting the help they need to improve their emotional health and ultimately allow them to learn in the classroom.
But the district has taken a step to fix that.
On Jan. 24, Superintendent Laura Hammack announced that Brown County Schools had received a $29,975 grant under Lilly Endowment Inc.’s comprehensive counseling initiative for Indiana students.
The district is one of 284 schools to receive a grant.
The aim is to increase the number of K-12 students who are “emotionally healthy, realize academic success, graduate from high school, obtain valuable post-secondary credentials, certifications and degrees necessary for meaningful employment,” so they can “compete and prosper” in the global society.
There are programs at the intermediate, junior high and high schools to help students prepare for college and careers.
But the district does not have full-time counselors in some buildings to address students’ emotional needs, which educators and counselors say are the foundation to learning.
Using the planning grant, Brown County Schools will assess its current counseling programs.
The money will also be used to engage counselors, educators, parents, students and community partners in focus groups to get a better sense of what the district’s needs are, Hammack said.
The district will also look at best practices for counseling programs and alternative strategies to them and assess what the main needs are that students are bringing to counselors.
Money will also be used for professional development, Hammack said.
The planning grant could lead to more grant money. Schools that go through the planning process can apply up to $100 per student to fund strategies to improve counseling programs. For Brown County, that could be as much as $187,500.
Whitcomb said the goal would be to have a counselor in every building full-time.
“Sometimes it feels like I’m spitting on a forest fire when you go into a building and there’s so much need,” she said. “It’s hard when you see their little faces in the hallway and they’re like, ‘I didn’t get to see you.'”
Whitcomb works at Brown County Junior High School three days a week. She spends one day at the intermediate school and high school. BCIS Assistant Principal Greg Pagnard also meets with students and stays in close contact with Whitcomb, she said.
Counselor Jaclyn Hardin serves Helmsburg and Sprunica elementary schools, while counselor Sarah Bosk works with children at Van Buren Elementary School.
Guidance counselors are trained to provide emotional support, but they are often spread thin. According to a 2012 study the counselors conducted, 40 percent of their time was spent on student assistance with 25 percent spent on academic achievement and 25 on students’ career development.
“Student assistance” includes help students need to graduate, like making schedule adjustments.
If that local study was done today, it would show even less time being spent on academic achievement and career development, the proposal says. Students are bringing more serious issues to counselors.
“If a student doesn’t come every day of school in the right frame of mind, then there’s not a lot of learning that’s going to happen,” Principal Brian Garman said.
“We have kids come in who maybe don’t know where they are going to stay tonight or where they’re going to sleep,” Whitcomb said. “They don’t know if they’re going to have food on the table. Then we expect them to be able to focus on math. It’s very frustrating for educators when they can’t, but yet if we don’t treat the whole person, we’re really not treating them at all.”
“You can’t ask a student to perform in the classroom until they feel safe, they feel wanted, they feel valued,” BCIS Principal Trent Austin said.
Whitcomb said some of the students she sees have anxiety issues, panic attacks and depression, and there are probably more than she is reaching.
“It’s sort of the squeaky wheel gets the grease, you know. If they’re not squeaking, they could easily fall through the cracks,” she said.
“I think that having this money would help us to be able to spread out.”
Garman agrees that counselors are needed in each building full-time.
“We have some students, particularly female students, that don’t necessarily want to speak with a male. Also not having her (Whitcomb) here every day breaks a little bit of the continuity that you give the students,” he said.
If the district was able to put counselors in every building using grant funding, Whitcomb said she would like to see all of them collaborate and coordinate what they’re doing through all grade levels on topics like character education.
“It’s something that’s kind of gone by the wayside in a lot of homes just because people are so busy doing other things,” Whitcomb said. “Our kids, what they’re learning, a lot of them, is from screens.”
Whitcomb said she would also like to see more educational activities for the entire school. Programming could help teachers understand and recognize the behaviors of their students and why they might be acting that way.
“It needs to have a continuity. We need to start at kindergarten and first grade and address them in their own language,” Whitcomb said.
At the junior high, teachers who notice behavioral or emotional changes report students to the office. Whitcomb, Garman or Assistant Principal Gavin Steele will meet with the student. A team effort takes place at the intermediate school, too, since Whitcomb is only able to be there one day a week.
This school year, a Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program allows teachers to complete an online form for a student who may be distressed, which alerts administrators.
Brown County Schools received a $143,000 federal grant for PBIS because of its poverty rate. The program encourages “positively supporting proper behaviors” at all grade levels, in all schools.
At the junior high, a team of administrators, counselors and teachers get together to discuss students who need help. They look at the student’s grades, attendance and other variables and develop interventions.
“It could be something as simple as meeting with a counselor on a more regular basis. An intervention could be a referral to Centerstone. That intervention could be helping students become better organized if it’s an academic issue. Often it’s just disorganization. There’s a myriad of things that we might come out of that with,” Garman said.
Testing by the district’s psychologist or a behavioral analysis might be other suggestions.
Caseworkers from mental health provider Centerstone have also been working in all buildings.
Centerstone operates under a memorandum of understanding that ends at the end of June and will need to be renewed in order to extend beyond July 1. All employees are funded entirely through Centerstone not-for-profit and services are billed through insurance or other contracted providers, said Amanda Kinnaird with Centerstone.
One therapist serves the high school and junior high school and is able to pull students out of class for private sessions.
A full-time family support specialist is stationed in the junior high, intermediate and three elementary schools to teach life skills, coordinate with teachers and faculty to create a behavior plan and offer crisis support.
“I think, sometimes, we assume that kids come to school equipped and knowing, ‘You know how to behave.’ I hear that a lot, but really and truly they don’t always know how to behave,” Whitcomb said.
“We’re making it more educational. We’ll teach you the expectations and then watch for you to do the right thing instead of watch for you to do the wrong thing.”