High schools offer individual help
Cambridge, Mass. — `SCHOOL counselors used to be called `academic advisers,''' says Stephen Clem, the director of academic services at the National Association of Independent Schools. ``But over the course of the '70s and early '80s, drug and alcohol abuse and the specter of adolescent suicide became more obvious, and schools realized that they were dealing with the emotional needs that kids were bringing with them.'' Today's students still need academic advice, but mainly because of growing pressures to achieve in school and to succeed afterward, those running guidance programs say. Home life with single parents, stepparents, or ``live-in'' partners has also had an unprecedented effect on children. Teen-age sexuality has become fraught with new dangers.
This litany of concerns has prompted counseling programs to expand. And as guidance has become more central to the educational mission of many high schools, the question of what public, independent, and parochial schools can offer has become more prominent.
At the public high school in Arlington, Mass., five certified counselors serve a student body of 1,300. They try to meet with each of their 260 students at least twice a year. The counselors also handle daily crises and questions. Frequently they refer students with major personal problems to outside agencies.
``We're on the front line, and our role is to listen and make suggestions,'' explains Vincent D'Antona, who supervises guidance, ``but the counselors here are not therapists.''
Arlington's counselors spend as much time on future career issues as present problems and advise students on college and vocational options. The school has trained a group of seniors and juniors to talk with depressed peers and teach alcohol awareness to younger students.
The generally smaller size of private schools can make a difference in the guidance they provide. ``People have more time to spend on kids and have fewer kids for whom to be responsible,'' points out independent schoolman Clem.
Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., has fewer students than Arlington High but employs five personal guidance counselors and five counselors for college placement. A boarding school, Andover provides additional support in the form of ``houseparents'' in student dormitories.
The counseling department sponsors special programs, including workshops on human sexuality and support groups for students with such problems as eating disorders or alcoholic parents. Personal counseling ranges from helping students adjust academically to working with those in the throes of depression and substance abuse.
Mimi Flood, the upper school head at the Harvard School in North Hollywood, Calif., notes that reduced class sizes in private schools enable teachers to know students better and spot problems that might require counseling.
It is not unusual for the teachers themselves to provide guidance, Ms. Flood goes on to say. ``We have plenty of first-rate teachers who extend themselves,'' she observes. ``The more that guidance is a priority, the more it is in their job description.''
Teachers at public schools may have neither the time nor the mandate to provide the same service, Flood says. She adds that the absence of formal training in counseling does not make the efforts of Harvard School's faculty less effective. ``What you're always trying to do in independent schools is to get a good fit,'' she says, ``and we have a group of people who just have a knack for talking with kids.''
Since private schools tend to be more accountable to their patrons, though, guidance can become a tricky proposition. ``If you raise issues that parents don't want to hear, such as suicide and its prevention, you can be subject to pressure,'' warns Eleanor Roffman, an associate professor of counseling at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass.
Parochial schools face the same student problems as their public and independent counterparts, but they offer their own distinct response. Michael Guerra, the executive director of secondary education at the National Catholic Education Association, describes guidance at the nation's almost 1,500 Roman Catholic high schools as both personal and institutional.
``The mission of counseling is not just having students explore and clarify their own values but also having them see what the institution holds dear,'' Mr. Guerra emphasizes.
``We have to be faithful to church teachings in the area of morality,'' he adds, citing sexuality as the main area in which parochial guidance differs from that of most other schools.
To bolster values such as integrity and generosity, most Catholic schools sponsor overnight retreats and service programs. The emphasis on community in parochial schools and the ``positive intrusiveness'' of teachers into the lives of their students are also important, says Guerra.
Although the involved programs and personal touches at independent and parochial schools may seem to set them apart, those in public school guidance are quick to explain any differences. Professor Roffman, whose program certifies counselors to work in public schools, notes that they will face a wider range of student needs.
In many urban areas, for example, counselors have to address conditions resulting from cross-cultural and racial differences, violence, or the need for students to work and attend school at the same time.