Learning First Alliance

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Supporting Kids: A Conversation with School Counselor of the Year Barbara Micucci

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Students can come to school with a lot of baggage. They may be feeling the stress of financial pressure at home. They may be dealing with a death or illness in their family. But as school counselor Barbara Micucci puts it, “Ultimately it does not matter the issues that kids bring to school. Schools are charged with educating the kids.”

This is where she and other counselors come in. We recently spoke with Micucci about the counseling profession—why it is important, how it has changed over the years and the challenges it faces. She also told us about her own work and some of the strategies that led her to be named the 2010 School Counselor of the Year by Naviance and the American School Counselor Association. Key to her success: visibility, and a desire to engage parents as partners in the educational process.

Micucci has been a counselor for over 20 years and is currently working at Caley Elementary School in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. She was selected from a field of extraordinary school counselors across the country and plans to use her new role to call for strategies to ensure that every elementary school across the United States has a school counselor.

Why Have School Counselors?

Public School Insights: Let’s start with a very general question. Why is it important for schools to have counselors?

Micucci: It is so important for a number of reasons. I think kids today are under a lot more stress and family pressure than they have been in the past. There are many reasons. Families themselves are very stressed. A lot of it comes from economic conditions. And aside from that, when I think of my school—and I am in a middle-class school in a suburban district—there are a lot of families where parents are divorced. There are single parent families. There are parents who have adopted children. I have a couple families where there's terminal illness. More families are coming with limited English proficiency. There are families living with other families because of the economy. Families where parents are unemployed. Families where parents are working a couple of jobs and do not have the time to spend with their children to support the school. Children with special needs, behavior concerns, emotional concerns.

Ultimately it does not matter the issues that kids bring to school. Schools are charged with educating the kids. But I think we would be remiss if we did not look at the social and emotional issues that kids bring. And counselors are in a prime position to support the kids and issues that they bring to school.

Public School Insights: Why did you become a school counselor?

Micucci: I was always interested in psychology, really fascinated by that whole field. And I love interacting with people. But I actually started as a special education teacher. I found my kids, in a private school, had a lot of issues. Then I went to the Philadelphia public schools, and really saw the multitude of issues that kids can come to school with. I had an epiphany one Friday, when I had about 20 kids staying after school with me for not doing homework, because they really did not want to go home. And they had no reason to go home. School was a safe place for them.

I went back to school to learn how to talk to these kids and understand what made them tick. That was really the reason I went back for counseling, to help me be a more effective teacher. It just happened that when I finished my program, and had loved it, they were hiring in Philadelphia, so I was able to get a job. I was able to combine teaching and lessons in the classrooms with the actual counseling piece.

The Changing Role of the School Counselor

Public School Insights: You have been a counselor for over 20 years. How is the field changed since you first entered it?

Micucci: When I look at the old way of doing things…In the past, I think counselors were put in roles where, yes, we did counseling. We coordinated services. We collaborated with staff. I used to call it the three C's. But we were very reactive. If there was a problem we addressed it.

Now counselors are much more proactive. We have established prevention programs. We have taken on more roles and are charged with a lot more tasks. We are now viewed as leaders in our buildings. We sit on data teams. We help make decisions regarding children and programming. We advocate for kids.

We use data more than we ever did. We used to look at, how many kids did we see? How many groups did we run? But now we really try to use the same school data that teachers and administrators do to look at whether our interventions are making a difference in kids, to figure out if we are being effective. I think there's a lot of rich information there. So I think that is a huge difference.

Public School Insights: You are an elementary school counselor. I do not remember my elementary school having a counselor. Is that common?

Micucci: I did not have one either. And to me, it is amazing that there were never counselors. I think that also speaks to the change in time. When I think back to my elementary days…My father died suddenly when I was in elementary school, and there was no one to even talk to about that. When I think about what kids go through now, I'm so sensitive to it, I think because of my experience.

Unfortunately, elementary counselors are not even mandated now. And I cannot imagine my school without a counselor. I think at this point it is important that counselors get on the forefront and let people know what we do, and advocate for how to best use our time and make a difference with kids. Because when you look at all the districts with budgetary issues, if we are not able to prove we are making a difference, our jobs are at risk. But we are such key players, working hand-in-hand with our administrators to help support the whole school mission.

What School Counselors Do

Public School Insights: What is some of the work that counselors do?

Micucci: The day-to-day definitely varies. Schedules change in a heartbeat. So being flexible is really key.

On a daily basis, I greet all my kids as they come in the building. I wear a big Minnie Mouse hand and give them all high fours. It is a way for me to be visible and to check in. I catch problems as they come through the doors. If somebody's upset, if a parent has an issue, I am available. I sit on school team meetings, so many mornings I start the day in a meeting with other staff or parents, looking at some of the issues our kids are facing. I run classroom lessons addressing skills such as friendship, conflict resolution, studying, organization, test taking, career development. I run a variety of groups, on social skills, friendship, divorce. I have a school success group. I take all fourth-grade girls through a group on relational aggression.

I also see kids individually. Many times it is regarding friendship—that is huge. I see kids for behavior issues. I help teachers develop behavior plans for kids. I sit in on IEP, 504 meetings and parent meetings. I work with staff when they have concerns. I do parent workshops. So my job varies. I wear a lot of hats.

Public School Insights: You are this year’s School Counselor of the Year. What are some of the practices that got you that award?

Micucci: I wonder about that myself sometimes, because I do not really know how to do the job any way other than I've done it. I had a really good beginning—my early days in the inner-city really shaped a lot of the practices that I utilize now. I believe in having a comprehensive program to meet the needs of all of my kids. I'm very visible in the building, and I think that is important.

And I have always believed that parents should be our partners and included in the learning process. I think that many times when parents are not doing what we see as their job in supporting kids, it is not because they don't want to. It is because they do not really know what to do. So I run parent workshops. I try to find creative ways to engage families. I've done mentoring with parents. I started a principal-counselor-parent book club that looks at issues relevant to our school. Our PTC has been great in supporting that effort. I set up blogs and use my website as a tool to put out information, and so parents can communicate with me. I've tried to be very innovative in getting parents involved. And I use data to decide where to put my efforts. I've tried to get fathers more involved with our boys in particular.

Engaging More Males

Public School Insights: What are some of the ways that you've been able to engage more fathers and other male family members in the school?

Micucci: This is fairly new—we just started last year. Our book club was all moms. We read Raising Cain to learn about the social and emotional development of boys—to get ideas about how we could reach more boys. The book talked a lot about how fathers—and all male role models, not just dads—are so important. So we created, as a very collaborative venture, “Boys’ Night Out.” We invited all of our boys to come with one significant male—dad, stepdad, grandfather, uncle, coach. They spent an evening doing activities together. They came in, and teachers took pictures of each pair or trio and put them into frames so everybody left with a picture of themselves. We put the pairs on sports teams—the Phillies, the Sixers, the Flyers or the Eagles, the four major sports teams in Philadelphia—and rotated them through four activities. It just gave them a chance to spend time with their son, or with their friend, doing activities that they both really enjoyed. And a number of school staff were involved—the gym teacher, the health teacher, secretaries.

This year we ran it again. We had an increase in the number of dads and boys who attended. And larger participation from our minority groupings, which was awesome. We made it into a fundraising event. I reached out to people in the community with connections to sports teams, like NFL Films and the Phillies, and we set up a raffle. We raised enough money to start the Watch DOGS program next year. DOGS is “Dads of Great Students.” The idea is to get dads to volunteer one full day in the school. We would schedule them in different activities. Maybe they would work with a kindergartener reading a book. Then they would go to first grade and do some flashcards. Then they would go to second grade. At lunch they would go to our lunchroom. During recess, they will go out to recess. Just spend an entire day in our building. The idea is that afterwards, when their child comes home, they will say “Hey, what did you do in school today?” It will give them that interest in what their kid is learning, because now they've spent a day and seen all that goes on. So that is our hope, to continue to bring in more males and to really get them involved in the education of our kids.

The Inner-City Versus the Suburbs

Public School Insights: You've worked in schools in a couple different settings, with both economically disadvantaged populations and children who are as a group more middle-class. How did those experiences differ? Or how were they similar?

Micucci: You know...Yes, they differed. I would say one of the biggest differences was probably that there was a larger minority population in inner-city. And I had more families with limited language ability. So we had more translators at the school site available to deal with those kids. Now we always try to reach out to find more ways to communicate with our families, but that was more available there.

When I started, I had a very innovative principal in Philadelphia, my first nine years as a counselor. While we had lower socioeconomic status kids—many of our families were on free and reduced lunch, and many were single parents or grandparents—she would not accept that as a reason why those children were failing. We were extremely innovative. We set up parent-child clubs. We put in a parent center to make the building a comfortable place for the parents—a lot had bad school experiences. We took a bus of them to City Hall to let them know their voice is important. So we did a lot of really innovative things.

I think that experience shaped me so much. Now that I am in the suburbs, I continue to think of innovative ways to reach out to families. The biggest difference is that I am able to get the parent involvement, in general. There are still some parents who really should come out but don’t. I’m still working on reaching them. I think parents want to have a voice in their kids’ education. All parents care about their kids. I think it is just getting them the tools and empowering them with the confidence to know that they know their child better than anyone. And that it is important they partner with us to try to educate their kids. So I see it as a question of degree. The issues you find everywhere. We have some of the same issues that they have in the inner-city. We just do not have the number of them. There are a lot less children in the needy situation, but there are still kids who have needs. So it is the same skill set I am using. It is just to a different degree.

Facing the Challenges

Public School Insights: What are some of the biggest challenges that you and the counseling professional face?

Micucci: Time is always a big one. There's so much focus on academics. When do you find time to pull kids to do the counseling, the groups? That is a huge issue. Everybody wants a piece of those kids. And typically the kids who are having social and emotional issues are also the kids who need reading intervention, or also get speech services, or also get assisted therapy. So getting to those kids is difficult.

And I think as budgets are cut and some staff are no longer employed, somebody has got to pick up those jobs. What I'm finding is that there has been a realignment of responsibilities, and sometimes the school counselor is asked to pick up some of those responsibilities. So that is a challenge.

Also, No Child Left Behind has had a significant impact on the way that schools do business. There is so much focus on testing. And that's a shame because the kids...For example, we only have one recess now instead of two, and the kids by the afternoon are just bleary-eyed. Those are just some of the challenges we face.

On a positive note, I'm glad to see school counselors are being asked to step to the table and be a part of the discussions about kids and what is best for them. That is the positive. But there are just so many things to do and there are only so many hours in the day that we have kids in front of us.

Public School Insights: Are there any particular success stories that you can share?

Micucci: That's a hard one. Certainly there are kids I know I've impacted, and families who have shared that. But sometimes we do not know until later the difference that we've made.

One that comes to mind is a student who came to us from another country. She started in my district, and she had a multitude of issues. I saw her individually. I had her in a few groups. I worked closely with her uncle. I worked with her social worker to get her support. And she is in such a better place now. At one point this year she stopped me and said, “I just want to thank you for all our little talks last year.” I have met with her this year, too, but I think that last year she felt so isolated and struggled a ton. You just don't always know what their perception is of what you do.

Public School Insights: Are there any questions I should have asked you, but did not?

Micucci: No, I cannot think of one. I think we have hit on a lot of important issues.

I do get passionate when I talk about school counseling. It is something I am really deeply committed to. At my school and in my district, I'm always trying to advocate for us. And I also teach at the college level, at Arcadia University. It is really important to me to get our counselors off on the right foot.

And I do try to reach out to as many counselors as I can just to share where we're at now, because there are a lot of counselors who are still operating in that old mode that is really just not as effective. So I am always trying to bring more counselors on board.