by Mary Helen Darah

L-R: Beth Emerson, Shannon Cargill, Kristina Kunkle, Tina Grabarczyk, Andrea Hoffman, Renee Stack, and Alex Thornton

Recently a group of elementary counselors gathered for a professional enrichment program. While assembled, the women shared backgrounds, missions and visions about their profession along with their growing concern about meeting the needs of their students. The services this group of hardworking women provides to children seems endless. Counselors offer emotional support and empathy, calming strategies, work to model effective communication without being passive or aggressive and to prevent bullying. Some of their lesser known initiatives include learning how to safely and responsibly use technology, assist kids with managing online communities, especially regarding cyberbullying, and assist in developing communication skills.

Highland Elementary counselor Beth Emerson shared how she arrived at her current role of guiding youth. “I disliked my educational experience and didn’t want kids to feel the way I did,” recalled Emerson. “I went into education and taught special ed. This is my second year in counseling. As a counselor, you relieve some of the academic pressures facing kids. Students, in a private setting and not in a classroom, are more likely to talk, especially about what is going on inside. It is a different relationship.”

Shannon Cargill, an interim school counselor at Whiteford, is a former correction officer and worked in the mental health field at the Zepf Center as a health home specialist. “I always wanted to help people and realized where the needs are,” stated Cargill. “Being in the school environment you can see the difference you make. In the mental health field, you see so many kids a month but rarely get the chance to see the impact you are making. Being in the schools you can see what early prevention does.”

Kristine Kunkle, counselor at Central Trail Elementary, taught junior high school science before becoming a counselor and has the honor of being named Ohio School Counselor of the Year. “As counselors we help children with direct and indirect services,” she explained. “Indirect services include meeting with parents and assembling teams to help with the growth and development of a child. Children are developing a sense of self during these years. We want to create lifelong learners.”

Tina Grabarczyk, counselor at Maplewood Elementary, began her career in elementary education. “I taught fifth grade for 15 years then went into school counseling,” she stated. “As a teacher, you are continually problem-solving. Sylvania has a great curriculum for counselors so I still feel like I am teaching but doing a great deal of one on one preventative work.”

“I went straight into school counseling after graduating in psychology and getting a master’s,” stated Andrea Hoffman, of Sylvan Elementary. “I wanted to be in a school environment and related well with kids. It’s my calling. I was a very anxious child. I understand what a lot of kids are going through. I ‘get’ those kids and it helps me to help them. I love my job. It’s a perfect fit for me.”

Renee Stack is the school counselor for Stranahan Elementary. She has a background in psychology and worked with kids with autism. “I realized school counseling was a perfect fit. In my childhood there were people in the schools assisting me and my family during times of struggles,” said Stack. “I remember the people that helped me and wanted to be that person for other kids. I try to pay it forward every day.”

Alex Thornton, counselor at Hill View Elementary, comes from a long line of teachers. “My mom and sister are teachers and I always knew I wanted to be in a school setting,” she stated. “I wanted to work with kids over a long period of time instead of just one year. My kindergartners who started with me are now in third grade. It is very rewarding to witness their development. I also work on transitioning students through middle school. It is so gratifying to see that growth.”

Stack is concerned that demand and need surpass the number of counselors available in the system. “The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor to 250 students. At this point in the elementary level range, the number varies from 1 to 337 to 1 to 701, which is obviously more than double, but still, one counselor covers both ranges,” stated Stack. “The population has changed over the past 10 years. There is diversity, social economic needs and mental health needs that we address. We have kids that are homeless, kids living in poverty, and kids living in multi-million-dollar homes in the same classroom. We need to meet everyone’s needs. With additional funding, we could provide preventative services at a young age, as well as mediation for students and families in need. Our goal is that every child that walks through our door experiences an incredible learning day and becomes a lifelong learner.”