Family services go to school

FAMILY service agencies and public schools in Boston are working together to provide students with counseling where they're most likely to take advantage of it - in the schools. As the Elementary School Level Prevention/Early Intervention Program, a consortium of five family agencies is bringing individual counseling, group workshops, and parenting programs to five sister elementary schools.

While the project is unusual in its setup (each agency provides services for one school, working closely with the school's staff to meet its varying needs), it reflects a growing awareness of the need for counseling at the elementary school level and a movement toward providing services within the schools.

According to Nancy Hardy, president of the American School Counselor Association, it is uncommon to find outside agencies coming in to elementary schools for such contract work. Typically, she says, a guidance program consists solely of a social worker or psychologist hired by the school. The guidance counselor in such a situation necessarily does much referring of cases to outside agencies.

Ideally, Ms. Hardy says, public school counselors and service agencies should work closely together, whether the school refers a student to the agency or the agency contacts the counselor for background on a child enrolled in his school.

But, according to Zita Cousens, a guidance counselor at the Boston Latin School, while ``there may be a willingness [to establish a working relationship between the two], sometimes logistics just make it impossible.''

Ms. Cousens concurs with other counselors that often a school does not know that a child is being counseled at an outside agency.

And, says Nancy S. Miller, staff social worker at Parents' and Children's Services in Boston, ``Oftentimes referrals [from schools to outside agencies] don't take.''

Ms. Miller, who coordinates her agency's services at the William Monroe Trotter School, says that in urban areas, parents are much less likely to take their children to a new agency or clinic. It's easier for them, she says, ``just to come into school.''

As an example, she tells about the mother of a Trotter School pupil who was taking her child to one of Boston's hospitals for counseling. The mother requested the case be transferred to school when she learned of the services offered at Trotter. ``It was easier for the mother to transport the child to school,'' Miller says.

Many educators and parents have become concerned in recent years that an increased emphasis on such services within the schools necessarily detracts from actual learning.

But David Lynn, director of publications at the Council for Basic Education in Washington, says he would have no problem with a program like the consortium's, so long as it does ``not interfere with a school's primary task of educating students.'' Restricting counseling and workshops to the after-school hours is perhaps the most obvious way to keep them from conflicting with classroom work.

Miller claims that having the service inside the school greatly benefits the children. ``Our role in the school is most helpful because we're right there every day,'' she says.

Parents' and Children's Services has at least one of six staff social workers and psychologists at the Trotter School every day, as well as doctoral candidates in those fields from nearby universities who serve as interns.

Responding to needs identified by the teachers and administrators, the Parents' and Children's staff has run orientation groups for new students, established a series of parent groups focusing on parenting skills, and provided individual and group counseling. The agency also offers family counseling within the school or at its downtown office, provides psychological evaluation services, and identifies children who might need counseling or special services.

These services, along with another pilot program called the Student Support Team, have greatly reduced the number of referrals the Trotter School has had to make to outside agencies. The Student Support Team includes Trotter's guidance counselor, nurse, teachers, and administrators. The team gathers regularly to discuss the needs of individual students in the hope of meeting them themselves.

Says John Fleming, Trotter's guidance counselor, ``We try to solve the problem in school without referring it to an outside agency by being flexible, adjusting the student's program or the school's approach to meet the student's need.'' He speculates that few elementary schools have similar contracts with outside agencies, simply because they do not know of the resources available to them or because they may not have a guidance counselor to look for such resources and to set up similar programs.

Parents' and Children's Services' work with the Trotter School is funded primarily by a United Way grant to the five participating agencies and by some private and foundation money.

According to Miller, the agencies are seeking more private funding and hope to receive some support from Boston's School Department.

Mr. Fleming says the work the agency does at Trotter is crucial. Having its services there means the school can address more than just the most volatile problems and ``serve more of the students' concerns.''

And according to Nancy Hardy, the need to address such concerns at the elementary school level is being recognized nationwide. She points to a national trend for guidance counseling services in elementary schools being mandated either by state legislation or by school committees.

Says Fleming, ``By addressing [students'] needs at a young age, you can reverse the problem quicker and easier, without all of the other difficulties that come with adolescence.''

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