“We spend weeks with listening skills, how to listen to others and listen in class,” Barmash said.
Teachers and school staff evaluate all of their students at the beginning of the year, trying to identify students who could benefit from counseling. It isn’t just focused on students acting out. They also look for withdrawn, introverted students who may struggle.
Children don’t need a formal diagnosis or any kind of special education status to receive counseling. Because the need is so great, the district has sought out additional funding and added counseling services. Contracting with an outside nonprofit has been a successful model because Lee Carlson counselors are viewed as the “trusted outsiders.”
“Because we are able to work with Lee Carlson, we are able to serve significantly more kids now than when I started in the district,” said Rick Hamann, Columbia Heights district assessment coordinator. “We were able to almost come close to doubling Lee Carlson services.”
Parents are contacted and must consent to counseling for their children.
“I have never met any parent who didn’t want the best for their child. When assistance is offered, it’s received positively,” Valley View Elementary Principal Willie Fort said. “I think parents know this is a long-term solution for some kids.”
Children meet with Barmash and other therapists in small groups during the school day, sometimes even during lunch. The meeting time is rotated so students don’t repeatedly miss the same subject matter. Academics come first. If students fall behind in a subject, counseling is put on hold until they catch up.
“It’s a good motivator. They don’t want to miss groups. It’s so important to them,” Barmash said.
How is the program received by teachers?
Last fall, several teachers were asking when counseling groups would start.
Helping one family
Last November, LaKeisha Craft was at work when police knocked on her door and told her middle-school children that her 16-year-old daughter, Hannah, had been struck by a car and killed while crossing Hwy. 10. Hannah’s work shift at McDonald’s had been cut, and her mother believes she was trying to catch a bus home.
The family of eight spiraled into their own private grief cycles. No one wanted to talk about it for fear of upsetting each other. But the grief came out in other ways.
Craft’s middle-school daughters got into fights at school. Her son started having nightmares. He believed his sister, Hannah, had been chased and killed. Craft said sometimes she couldn’t control the tears and the roil of emotion.
“When tragedy comes, it does change you,” Craft said.
Lee Carlson therapists offered in-school counseling through Columbia Heights schools for all of the children, helping them work through the grief and anger. Having it at school meant the kids didn’t have to miss after-school sports and activities.
Craft said she’s seen a new calm in her children since counseling started.