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AFT members lauded as school counselors of the year

Two school counselors and AFT members have won top honors from the American School Counselor Association. Mindy Willard, a school counselor at Sunset Ridge Elementary School in Glendale, Ariz., and Shelby Wyatt, a school counselor at the Kenwood Academy, a public high school in Chicago, build supportive school cultures as early as possible in their students' educations. Willard starts teaching social skills in kindergarten. Wyatt has been putting teens on the road to college through a mentoring initiative called the Brotherhood of Kenwood Academy.

For their efforts, Willard was named 2013 counselor of the year, and Wyatt was named a finalist.

Professional school counselors can make a difference in school safety when they have enough time to use their expertise, both Willard and Wyatt said at a recent Capitol Hill briefing in Washington, D.C.

In the United States, the ratio of students to school counselors is, unfortunately, about twice what it ought to be, thanks to budget priorities that force schools to choose between security and mental health. The student-to-counselor workload was 471-to-1 in the 2010-11 school year, while the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250-to-1.

AFT School Counselor Mindy Willard

Mindy Willard

School counselors do the best they can despite these numbers. At her school, Willard supports 650 elementary students by using a pyramid she created for teaching social skills, and fostering a safe and supportive culture. Recognized as an ASCA national model program, this structure has three layers.

The biggest and widest section, at the base of the pyramid, is prevention. Twice a month, Willard offers lessons on violence, bullying and substance abuse prevention, character education, social skills and problem-solving.

The middle layer is intervention, adapted from the Response to Intervention model. Fifth-graders who need extra support meet in small groups with teachers and school counselors. These groups are always run by the counselor, with the topic driven by need, such as anger management, grief or study skills. Another type of intervention is a meeting the counselor has with staff to discuss concerns about a student or group of students.

At the top of the pyramid is a small triangle for crisis response. That happens when students pose the potential of harm to themselves or others. School counselors provide individual counseling, referrals to mental health professionals, an outside crisis team or other agencies, and post-incident support, including grief counseling and follow-ups with the student and family.

AFT School Counselor Shelby Wyatt

Shelby Wyatt

"We are developing men out of boys, one at a time," says Shelby Wyatt, whose Brotherhood after-school program for black and Latino teens has an 85 percent college-going rate in a city with a 39 percent high school graduation rate and "the moniker of the murder capital of the United States." About 20 gangs with thousands of members terrorize entire neighborhoods. Every year, hundreds of children are murdered.

"I soon learned that my job was primarily about keeping schools safe," says Wyatt's principal, Gregory Jones. "In Chicago, I hate to say it, we've become immune to the killing of children."

Jones is dismayed that Wyatt's caseload, at 400, is twice what it should be. But over the past nine years, every single Brotherhood member has graduated from high school. The program focuses on forming relationships and helping kids understand the value of a good education.

A Chicago native who began his career as a substitute teacher in 1987 and now is a National Board-certified teacher and school counselor, Wyatt said in an interview that he began gravitating toward counseling when "kids just started telling me their business. They trusted me."

Such trust is essential. According to research conducted last year by the University of Chicago crime lab and the Chicago schools, counseling and mentoring help students develop their academic achievement, leadership and civic engagement.

And it's civic engagement, Wyatt says, that will bring people together to stop the killing. "We must take collective action to solve the problems of violence in our community," he told Congress. [Annette Licitra/AFT video/photos by Michael Campbell]

February 20, 2013