By Laurel Lisovskis, BSW
Part 1 in our Share the Wealth series. Click to read other Share the Wealth posts.
It is no secret that we continue to feel the pinch in the realm of public school budgets. Across the country, year after year we have seen a disturbing reduction of sustainable financial support to our children’s educational experience. In Oregon, where I live, the struggle is palpable. We rank 49th out of 50 for class size ratio. Yikes. And yet, in Bethel School District where I am doing my internship, we have some of the highest graduation rates in the state. How is this possible?
Well, where the rubber hits the road, it is always about the fantastic, resourceful, passionate people. Embedded in the district’s school-based health center, I have had the unique opportunity to participate in some amazing programs and work with amazing staff and students to provide mental health services.
This series of blogs, “Share the Wealth,” aims to spotlight the creative and innovative ways that folks are engaging students to make their schools a better place to learn, even in the lean years. With many school counselors splitting one full-time employment position between two school sites, the realities of class size ratio, and a host of other challenges, one could easily become discouraged. We could all practice our most dramatic posturing in the mirror and chat over endless cups of coffee about the woes of the state of things. But instead, the tone in the lunchrooms and staff lounges—from the health center to the middle schools—is one of resiliency.
Let’s begin by looking at community context. One way to bridge the counselor gap is to reach out for resources. That’s exactly what the Shasta Middle School counselor did one morning before she had to dash off to her afternoon post at a nearby elementary school. She called Ophelia’s Place—a local nonprofit agency committed, through prevention, support, and education, to helping girls make healthy life choices. Among the wide variety of services they offer—including after-school drop-in, workshops, classes—is a school support component. They provide classroom presentations for both genders, staff training, healing empowerment and recovery therapy groups, and girls’ empowerment groups.
For a nominal fee, an MSW intern from Ophelia’s Place and I brought into the school a full ten-week curriculum for a closed group of eight seventh graders. We met over the first part of the school year for an hour and a half each Tuesday. In exchange for sacrificing lunch and an elective, these girls explored topics like bullying and relational aggression, media and body image, depression and anxiety, self-injury, and skills for being better allies to one another.
Pre- and post-surveys revealed that girls felt an increased ability to make good decisions, felt that they had more tools for coping with stressful situations, and felt more proud to be girls. During our last session they were asked to share how they felt about one another. We did a labeling exercise, where each girl wrote one sincere compliment on a sticker for each member of the group. Then, one at a time, a girl stood in the middle of the circle, turning slowly to be “labeled” with these compliments. What a moment! Words like “amazing” and “true friend” lined the arms of their sweaters, and, more importantly, stuck to their hearts.
Among the breezeways at Shasta Middle School, I am sure to hear the occasional negative remark, and I am aware that there is still unkind banter and hurtful words exchanged among social groups. I am also aware that some students won’t stand for those remarks, and I have seen girls who I worked with in this group act on behalf of those students who didn’t speak up for themselves. In fact, if I had a high-five for every instance that someone felt protected because of this ally-building cushion of support from Ophelia’s Place, I would have some very sore hands. Well done, counselor extraordinaire! Well done, administration, for listening to and supporting the ideas of the staff! Well done, community agency who made materials and skills training available! It is truly inspiring to be a part of this effort, and to enjoy the smiles of students who have learned how to look out for themselves and one another.
Laurel Lisovskis, BSW, is in her second year of graduate school working toward clinical licensure in social work at Portland State University. Her field placement is at the school-based Bethel Health Center, one of the innovative programs conceived through an alliance between state healthcare initiatives and public schools to bring services directly to students and families at school sites. Her intern experience includes doing individual and group therapy, as well as traditional social work roles such as resource utilization, collaboration with internal and external supports, and case management. Laurel is also working within the clinical setting to streamline integrated care services. With over ten years of expertise in counseling in both healthcare and public school domains, she lends a unique perspective of the connectivity between mental health and the well-being of middle school student populations.
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