By Steven Krolak
NEW ALBANY, Ind. – In the race to improve student achievement in kindergarten through grade 12, the focus is generally on teachers. But school counselors also have an important role to play, as they deal with issues that can inhibit student success.
Two of these issues are attendance and behavior. These are the subject of an educational module pioneered at IU Southeast, called Close the Gap.
“Close the Gap teaches school counseling trainees how to identify and implement evidence-based strategies to improve achievement,” said Shifa Podikunju-Hussain, associate professor of education at IU Southeast.
The “gap” in the project’s name refers to the discrepancy in any area of school life between some segments of the population and others. Counselors cannot solve all the social, economic and historical factors that contribute to these gaps in student achievement. But they can seek to identify the gaps more precisely and devise realistic counseling interventions that will lead to better student performance. That academic improvement can translate into social advancement.
At IU Southeast, students in the second year of the school counseling program work as interns in area schools. They learn to work with data and to analyze gaps in their schools’ data, especially in areas of academic achievement, behavior issues and college and career readiness. Working closely with school staff, they present findings, design and gain approval for interventions, implement these strategies, collect and analyze data on their performance, and present both a midyear and final report to their internship school administration and faculty.
On Nov. 12, four IU Southeast graduate school counseling students — Mary Magner, Anna Noltemeyer, Kristen Shipman and Amber Wischmeier — presented their Close the Gap projects at a panel discussion at the Indiana School Counselor Association Fall Conference in Indianapolis, Ind.
“It was a great opportunity for these students to demonstrate to professional counselors how they can use their interns to make a difference in the classroom,” said Podikunju-Hussain.
Shipman is an intern at Renaissance Academy, a high school in Clarksville, Ind. After analyzing data linking attendance and grades, she identified poor attendance as a key barrier to achievement for some students at her school. Renaissance Academy is part of the New Tech Network, and follows a project-based model based on group projects. When one student’s attendance falls off, the performance of the entire group is negatively affected.
Shipman designed a series of collaborative interventions. She created a newsletter to inform parents of attendance policies, she distributed a list of students with perfect attendance and unveiled incentives through a monthly “Perfect Pals” award that recognized students with perfect attendance with a treat, photo on facebook and more. She also produced a seven-minute video on the importance of attendance and attendance policy that, when sent to parents – and 99% confirmed receiving it — acts as a type of contract. Finally, and perhaps most effectively, she partnered with the school principal and resource officer to visit the homes of students with three unexcused absences.
Noltemeyer interns at Georgetown Elementary in Georgetown, Ind., working with fourth grade teachers and counselors to address office infractions and inappropriate behaviors that included physical and verbal aggression, especially on the bus.
Among other actions, Noltemeyer created a whimsical video that uses humor to address the topic of bus behavior. In the eight-minute video, a fourth grader plays the part of an exasperated bus driver, while teachers play the roles of students desperately in need of manners – scattering out of the school, jostling aboard the bus, squabbling over seats, playing keep-away in the aisle with objects taken from other kids, and generally inducing a level of mayhem that puts the safety of the bus at risk.
Amber Wischmeier is engaged at Corydon Intermediate School in Corydon, Ind. Like Shipman, she is focused on interventions that improve attendance, an area identified for improvement by the schools’ principal.
Wischmeier identified a gap in communication between the school and families regarding attendance policies – many students and their parents were unaware that late arrivals and early pickups count against attendance. So she provided information explaining the differences between excused and unexcused absences to parents during open house. She also works closely with the counselor and attendance secretary to monitor unexcused absences, and feeds this information into the process that ultimately includes the schools Attendance Review Team, which meets with parents as needed. As a member of that team, she also liaises with the public prosecutor for cases requiring legal action.
Among the interventions she considers her most successful, Wischmeier created a system of perfect attendance incentives (gift cards and treats), and a “peer buddy” program in which one student from each homeroom welcomes students who have been absent back to class, and makes sure they have information they need to make up missed assignments.
Two months into the term, and all of these interventions are showing measurably positive results. The final reports are not due until April, but already the students and their schools are seeing the value of the interns’ contributions.
“I’ve learned that counselors can broaden their involvement in school initiatives such as attendance,” said Wischmeier. “It really does connect to future success, which makes it very appropriate for a counselor to help with.”
Podikunju-Hussain sees Close the Gap as more than a way to improve scores. It’s a means to promote social justice in schools by helping to overcome gaps whose origins may lie in ethnicity, poverty, geography, and ability.
“School counselors must be prepared with the knowledge, attitudes and skills of leadership and advocacy to be effective and competent partners in improving student achievement,” she said.
Photo: IU Southeast graduate students in counselor education attend the Indiana School Counselor Association Fall Conference 2015 in Indianapolis, Ind. From left, Amber Wischmeier, Kristen Shipman, Prof. Shifa Podikunju-Hussain, Anna Noltemeyer and Mary Magner.