Learning First Alliance

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Interview with Mindy Willard: ASCA's 2013 National School Counselor of the Year

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

The economy may be slowly improving, but many families and children are still struggling to get by in communities across the country. Economic insecurity increases childhood stress and negatively affects a student's ability to focus and be present in the classroom. School counselors are on the front lines when it comes to supporting students through this and other challenges ranging from incidents of bullying, issues at home, academic struggles, and depression and anxiety, to name just a few.

Recently, Mindy Willard, the American School Counselor Association's (ASCA's) 2013 National Counselor of the Year, was kind enough to share her insights and experience with Public School Insights (PSI). She has created a counseling program at Sunset Ridge Elementary School that serves all its 650 students through a range of activities and interventions. She also provided specific goals, interventions and results from the program, highlighting how such efforts support student health and learning. And, as the National Counselor of the Year, she shared some of her thoughts on the challenges counselors face, important facts to highlight in advocacy efforts and what she's looking forward to doing this year in her national role. 

Public School Insights (PSI): First, congratulations on being named the 2013 ASCA School Counselor of the Year. And thank you for taking the time to answer some of our questions about your work and the value of school counselors. Could you share with us what drew you to counseling?

Willard: I always knew I wanted to work with people, children in particular; it wasn’t until college when I discovered the idea of becoming a school counselor. I was pursuing my undergraduate degree in Psychology and quickly realized there was not a whole lot I could do with that degree. I began exploring my options, spending summers working with children in juvenile detention facilities and group homes. I discovered I really wanted to help these kids before they reached this point in their lives. I shadowed an elementary school counselor for a class and discovered it was a perfect match for me.

PSI:  As a counselor, you support students’ social and emotional well-being, and that includes academic success and career development. Given that vast array of responsibilities, could you enlighten us as to what one of your days (or weeks if that’s easier) might look like in terms of activities, direct work with students and engagement with your colleagues? How do you prioritize the work that needs to be done?

Willard: The ASCA National Model has really been the framework for my counseling program over the years. Setting up annual and monthly calendars has helped ensure that I am prioritizing my time and meeting the needs of my campus as best I can, while serving a case load of 650 students. My annual calendar is an overview of major events going on, such as Red Ribbon Week or Career Day events. Monthly, I create a calendar schedule of my guidance lessons. Guidance lessons are a top priority for me. This is the only way that I can ensure each of my 650 students are being impacted by the counseling program. I visit each classroom twice a month. Prevention is the heart of my program and always my first priority. Those lessons are designed around data from that grade level. Whenever possible, I use evidence based counseling curriculum, such as Second Step or Too Good for Drugs. Once my guidance lessons are scheduled, I fill in time slots with small groups, meetings and individual counseling as needed. In our district Wednesday afternoons are set aside for professional development. I use this time to either attend my school’s professional development activities or to meet with our district counseling team. A typical day would include three to four 45 minute lessons, one to two groups and individual student meetings in between those scheduled lessons and groups.

PSI: In your work over the years, are there specific experiences that come to mind that helped shape your approach to your work, refined your techniques and helped you grow in your profession?

Willard: The most significant experience would be my district’s adoption of the ASCA National Model. Dr. Judy Bowers came to our district in 2006 to walk all 13 counselors through the model. Prior to this, I had heard about the model and had bits and pieces taught to me in college; however, her professional development offered to our counselors and our district’s willingness to adopt the model really shaped the development of the counseling programs in our district. The model allowed us to implement best practices in counseling, just as teachers are encouraged to use best practices in their classrooms.

Another event that has shaped my approach would be receiving the Recognized ASCA Model Program in 2011. This process allowed me to completely and fully understand the ASCA Model. Prior to this experience I had a basic understanding of the use of data in a school counseling program but was unsure how to put it into use. RAMPing really solidified my understanding of how essential data can be to a comprehensive school counseling program.

PSI: In 2011, the Sunset Ridge Counseling Program received the Recognized ASCA Model Program Award (RAMP). Would you please share some essential elements of the program, how you structured and implemented it, and what you’re seeing as a result?

Willard: The AzSCA Model was published during the time that I was in graduate school. My professor, Charlene Alexander at Ball State University in Indiana, did a great job of exposing us to the model prior to graduation. From the beginning of my career in 2004, I had always implemented parts of the model. However, it wasn’t until I worked on my RAMP that the model became perfectly clear to me. The most important part of the RAMP process, for me, was setting and working toward three counseling goals. Annually, teachers must write SMART goals for their classes; it only makes sense for a counseling program to focus on goals as well. Below is an outline of the three goals I focused on, as well as the results, for my RAMP.

Goal A. 75% of the students in grades 4-8 who missed 11% or more of school during the 2008-2009 school year will increase their attendance by at least 5% during the 2009-2010 school year.  (Target group = 9 students)

  • Intervention Goal A: Counselor checked in weekly with these students throughout the school year.
  • Result Goal A: 67% of the targeted students increased their attendance by a minimum of 5%. The average attendance rate for these students at the end of the previous school year was 86%. After working with me, the counselor throughout the year, students in the group increased their average attendance rate to 92% the following year, a 6% increase.

Goal B. 6th grade students will participate in a Too Good For Drugs Guidance Unit during the fall semester (2009), and demonstrate a 15% improvement in the knowledge and a 30% improvement attainment of skills related to goal setting, decision making and feelings in regards to using substances.

  • Intervention for Goal B: Counselor completed 10 classroom lessons with all 6th grade students utilizing the Too Good For Drugs Curriculum. Pre and Post tests were given to students.
  • Result Goal B: Data indicated that sixth grade students scored an average of 78% on the Substance Abuse Knowledge Pretest and an 86% on the Posttest. This indicated an 8% increase in student substance abuse knowledge. Students were also given a Substance Abuse Attitudes pre and post test. The pretest indicated that 40% of students believed they had the necessary skills related to goal setting and decision making in regards to substance use. Posttest indicated that 67% held these beliefs. An increase of 27% in their confidence toward using refusal strategies.

Goal C. 30% of targeted 5th grade students who were designated as “meets” or “exceeds” by less than 5 points on the 2009 AIMS assessment in Reading will increase their scores to the “exceeds” category on the 2010 AIMS assessment.  (Target group = 8 students)

  • Intervention for Goal C: Counselor met with Targeted 5th grade students weekly for 10 weeks of small group counseling. Focusing on skills and strategies to increase behaviors that lead to successful learning, test taking strategies, study skills and reading.
  • Results for Goal C: 75% of the Targeted students showed an increase in the AIMS 2010 Reading Assessment. Average increase for the group was 16 points per person. 38% of students moved from “meets” to “exceeds” on the 2010 AIMS Reading Assessment.  

PSI: In today’s economically fragile climate, can you speak to the changing patterns in the types of issues you’re seeing children struggle with and if you’ve been modifying your work to address them?

Willard: The demographics of my own school have changed dramatically in the 9 years that I have been there. Last year, we became Title I, and I know this is due in large part to the economy and the unfortunate situations many of our families have found themselves in. As a result of this, we have many transient students. This is hard, not only on the students coming and going, but also on our teachers and the students who remain. Last year I spent a great deal of time researching best practices for welcoming and transitioning new students. I offer a quarterly “Breakfast with the Counselor” where students new to our school can meet me and gain information about Sunset Ridge. I survey the kids to find out how the transition has gone for them and discuss with them all the people at our school who can help them. We have also implemented a “Welcoming Committee” of National Junior Honor Society students to meet the new families and provide a tour of our campus on the child’s first day. So many times these children have been uprooted from their homes and schools, I can only imagine how hard it must be for them to build strong relationships at school. Through these activities, I want to show them from the beginning that we care about them, no matter how long they have been or plan to be at our school.

Due to the aforementioned issues, I’ve had an increasing number of students come to school without school supplies or appropriate fitting clothing. Rather than seek assistance from outside agencies, we have taken this need into our own hands. Community Service is a very important part of our school culture. I work along with our Student Council or National Junior Honor Society to host school supply drives, clothing drives and/or canned food drives to provide our own families with the resources that they need. When families have a need that I am unable to fulfill through my resources, I always refer them to a community agency thatcan better assist them.

PSI: Counselors are also at the intersection of student learning and interface with administrators, students, teachers and parents. What steps can school counselors take to build better relationships and facilitate communication among these various groups?

Willard: Our interactions with each of these groups are vital to the success of our counseling programs. Without teacher or administrator support, counselors often find themselves alone or sharpening pencils for standardized tests! I believe that the best way to work with administrators and teachers is to speak their language. We must show them what we can do for our students through the use of data. No one can argue with the results that I shared previously. What principal or teacher will say that they do not want less students using substances, or less students coming to school on a regular basis? When we support the work we do through data, administrators and teachers will listen.

As far as working with these various groups to help them communicate with one another better, a school counseling Advisory Council is a perfect way to have stakeholders from each of these areas come together in one place to talk about what is best for students. Advisory Council is a major component to the ASCA National Model. It is a group of people that guide the counseling program and offer support and feedback along the way. However, it is also a great place for these groups of people to come together to brainstorm solutions to situations at their school or to celebrate things that are working well.

The counselor can play a huge part in building the culture and climate of their school. Over the years I have spent hours planning and implementing school-wide events such as Red Ribbon Week, Mix It Up at Lunch day, Family Lunches, Family Dances and parents education nights. Families are always invited to visit our school and spend time with our teachers and administrators during these events. This helps everyone take a step back and celebrate one another and what we are doing for our kids.

PSI: This is more of a three-part question. As ASCA’s 2013 National School Counselor of the Year (and President-Elect of the Arizona School Counselor Association), you are well connected to both the national and state levels when it comes to advocacy and policy. And you know that in spite of the integral role that counselors play in schools, their job security is more precarious in the current climate than many other school employees, and their workload is increasing both in terms of the number of students each counselor is expected to serve and in terms of the needs of the student population they are serving. Could you elaborate a bit on: 

  • The challenges facing school counselors today, both from a school-level perspective and also from the viewpoint of the profession?                         

    In my opinion, the biggest challenge school counselors are faced with right now, on all levels, are our ratios. Currently, Arizona is 49th in the nation for counselor to student ratios with a ratio of 1 counselor to 861 students; ASCA recommends a ratio of 1:250! With numbers like this it is virtually impossible for school counselors to meet all of the personal/social, academic and career developmental needs of all the students on their caseloads. These numbers aren’t typically advertised so counselors receive a lot of criticism for not doing what others assume they should be doing for students. We are working hard for our students and doing the best that we can with the time and resources that we have; however, unless someone is in the trenches right along with us, it is oftentimes difficult for them to understand the challenges that we face.

  • What key facts and talking points you believe advocates should highlight when discussing the important role of counselors in supporting student achievement?                                                                  

Willard: I believe that advocates should highlight the fact that school counselors work with ALL students, not simply a certain population of students. Oftentimes the general public assumes that counselors only work with those students with particular issues, especially at the elementary level. I oftentimes find myself explaining to parents or other community members that my role is not that of a mental health counselor, that I spend anywhere from 35%-45% of my time in classrooms with all students. I think it is also important to educate others about how the role of the school counselor has changed over the years. School counselors of today are doing very different jobs than they did 20 or even 10 years ago. We are no longer “guidance counselors” only focused on graduation and course selection for students. We are Professional School Counselors who focus on the academic, personal/social AND career development of ALL students.

  • What are you looking forward to doing this year, nationally and on the state level, to support advocacy and policy efforts on behalf of your colleagues and ASCA?

    I’m looking forward to being a voice and an advocate for school counselors in Arizona and nationally. Counselors are hard working individuals who do not always receive or ask for the credit they deserve when it comes to the success of schools and individual students. I want to use this position to help educate our communities and our legislature about the vital role that we play in not only a student's future, but also in a student's present.

We are the first line of defense when it comes to recognizing mental health issues in children. We see these students on a daily basis; we understand the families they come from and the resources that are available within our communities. Counselors are vital to the prevention and intervention of violence in our schools.