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More school counselors could afford needed ounce of prevention

If a student at Central Elementary has a particularly tough weekend at home, school counselor Leslie Smith won’t get to hear about it until four days later.


If a Lake Junaluska Elementary student is acting out on a Friday because they are struggling to cope with different emotions, Smith can’t be there to help. She is one of five fulltime school psychologists covering Haywood County’s nine elementary schools — which means splitting her time between two schools during the week.

“There are things that happen when you aren’t here, and you can’t be,” said Smith, who was hesitant to give any specific examples of school time incidents due to student confidentiality. “The ones that suffer with that are the kids.”

The school system hopes to change that by adding four additional guidance counselors so that each elementary school will have its own full-time counselor.

By getting troubled children help earlier, school officials hope to keep kids from becoming disgruntled and expressing their emotions through acts of violence or threats. Parents, politicians and school leaders have called for increased safety and preventative measures in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy.

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While school districts around the country have already or are contemplating adding more school resource officers to keep a watchful eye on students, Haywood County Schools is looking at increasing the number of school counselors on staff.

“We think it is a preventative measure for us,” said Bill Nolte, assistant superintendent of Haywood County Schools.

More counselors mean more eyes on the students. Counselors can help identify bullying and students with problems controlling their emotions or who need an ear to talk about troubles at home.

“If I get teased, how do I handle that?” Smith said of a common cunundrum students face. “How do I handle the bossy kid?”

Haywood County Schools will seek a $500,000 budget increase from the county for the coming fiscal year to add four new school resource officers and four new school counselors. Haywood school leaders presented their desired budget for the year at a school board meeting last week. The budget details projected revenues and expenses and also acts as a wish list when school administrators meet with county leaders in coming weeks to ask for funding.

“We are at the mercy of people actually providing what we are asking for,” Nolte said.

Haywood County used to have one fulltime counselor per elementary school and in a few cases, a part-time counselor as well. But they were cut.

Now only Bethel elementary, which has more than 500 students, has a full-time counselor. The other eight elementary schools have a counselor part time, which leaves school administrators and teachers to deal with any problems on the counselor’s off-days.

“We frequently have students who have emotional needs, and the counselor is at the other school that day,” Nolte said.

Often times, what is happening at home spills over into the school day and affects students’ behavior and decisions. While counselors can sometimes anticipate problems on the horizon for students, there will always be times when something unexpected occurs — and the school counselor may or may not be available.

“That is the concern. There is no way to be as effective as when I was at one school all the time,” Smith said.

When Smith was responsible for only one school, she knew the students and developed a rapport with them. She was more aware of personality and behavior changes.

“The more I know the kids, the more comfortable they are with me,” Smith said.

But now she has about 600 students in two schools under her supervision. About a quarter of those students, Smith estimated, have come to see her at some point or another.

“I don’t know that the problems are any different than 20 years ago. (But) they seem more severe and multiple,” she said.

Elementary school counselors can get to kids early and help teach them important skills such as perseverance, conflict resolution and even time management.

“I think that just makes sense. If you can help kids figure out school at the elementary level, middle school and high school will be so much better,” Smith said.

When students are having troubles at home or with friends, it affects their productivity at school so teachers, staff and counselors try to make school a safe haven.

“It is possible for kids with really awful home situations to find their place in school,” Smith said. “They can make it if school is something they feel good about, even if things are falling apart at home.”

Counselors visit each classroom at least once a month to teach a new life lesson. It also gives them a chance to evaluate students. See if their body language is closed off, if they are more quiet than usual or disruptive. 

Since teachers are with the children every day, they too notice the same nuances. With everything else on their plate, however, teachers don’t have the time that school counselors can devote to aiding a single student.

“The classroom teachers just have so much. They can’t be everything,” Smith said.

For Smith, more full-time counselors mean she can spend more time focusing on individual kids, getting to know them and help them. And it could mean fewer students falling through the cracks.

“The more time that you have in a school, the more able you are to meet more needs,” Smith said.

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