Reading, writing and arithmetic are not the only basics schools teach these days. Sometimes students need to learn how to make it to school in the morning, how to face down a test or how to cope with personal problems so they can focus on studies.
Specialists from Central Peninsula Counseling Service now work alongside teachers to ensure that students' mental health needs are being met.
Dennis Dunn, principal of Kenai Alternative High School, works closely with the specialists to teach his students life skills. The partnership with the counseling service is vital, he said.
"It makes a huge difference. It often makes the difference between a student being in school or not being in school. It's that simple," he said. "It provides the extra layer of support."
The counseling specialists are not school employees, but they work in the schools through a program called Central Peninsula School-Based Services, which is run as a partnership between the counseling service and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
"It's kind of an interesting marriage between the two systems," said Tess Dally, who coordinates the school counseling program for CPCS.
The specialists and the educators work well together because they share a common focus on the children's welfare, she said. And school has turned out to be an excellent place for mental health services.
Students are more willing to approach a familiar counselor to discuss their problems than some adults are to contact a professional, Dally said. The counselors are readily available and able to respond immediately.
The specialists on her staff have degrees in education, psychology, counseling or social work.
Some meet with students for scheduled therapy sessions. They team with classroom teachers to teach life skills classes to students selected as needing extra help.
But most of their work is less structured.
The specialists advise parents, drive students to medical appointments, help get them basics like food or clothing, teach children how to get along on the playground and show up at students' homes to offer them lifts when they fail to appear at school.
And their work doesn't end when classes finish in May. School can be an important support for a youngster with personal problems, so the school-based specialists continue working with their young clients four days a week in June and July, Dally said.
Students' families pay for the services through insurance or on a sliding scale. The entire project is subsidized through grants, she said.
Dunn praised the specialists' flexibility and their support for academics.
"They believe in the importance of students being successful in school," he said. "They support the academics through the meeting of individual needs."
Teachers and principals refer students to the counselors, but some clients approach them on their own.
"At the end of the school year we had served over 200 students," Dally said.
The service's involvement in schools dates back about seven years, when a single counselor began working at Kenai Middle School as a pilot project. Since then, the partnership between CPCS and the school district has grown to involve 16 schools.
Dally and Dunn said the program is growing. It addresses real needs and gets positive results, they said.
"There are folks coming to us with lots of needs," Dunn said. "We need to be more than conveyors of information."
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