First Person

Green Mountain H.S. counselor among nation's top 10

While Sandy Austin was a student at Lakewood’s Green Mountain High School, she remembers when a particularly good motivational speaker visited her school.

Earl Reum, who died in 2010 after a career spent inspiring young people, left the students with one essential message. He said many people think that young people only care about themselves. He knew that not to be true. He challenged the students to become B.I.O.N.I.C. people and say ‘Believe It Or Not I Care’ with their lives.

Sandy AustinAustin didn’t know it at the time, but those words would become an integral part of her career.

Austin, 51, now a counselor at her alma mater, was recognized last month by the American School Counselor Association as one of nation’s top 10 school counselors out of 100,000. She met with Colorado’s Congressional delegates, attended a hearing, and was a featured guest at a black tie  gala.

“It’s such a shock and an honor,” Austin said. “It’s a real tribute to my mentors. I’ve had incredible people. I’ve worked with some of the best.”

Tami Shrader, community relations/Race to Read coordinator at Bandimere Speedway, nominated Austin for the award.

“She’s really compassionate and she will listen to the kids,” Shrader said. “She just jumps right in and really does have a heart for it.”

From P.E. teacher to counselor

Austin was also named 2008 Colorado High School Counselor of the Year. Before she became a counselor, she was a P.E. teacher  – but not a “typical one,” she said.

“I was always looking for the struggling students,” Austin said. “I focused on those students and I wanted to give them positive reinforcement.”

As much as Austin loved being a teacher, she had a hip injury and she knew she would need a hip replacement. A new career path was in order. She started to look for counseling jobs.

A year after becoming a counselor at Ranum High School in Denver, she applied for a position at Green Mountain, where she became co-sponsor of a peer mediation program. But a spate of four student suicides in eight months made her painfully aware that more needed to be done to support students.

“I was looking at the issue and I wondered, How did they fall through the cracks? I saw that often it was the kids who were new to our school or students who missed school for many days due to illnesses, health conditions, the loss of a loved one, or a tragedy of some kind (who struggled).”

So, in 2004-2005, Austin spun off Reum’s words from years earlier and created the “Believe It Or Not I Care (B.I.O.N.I.C.)” team, the nation’s first. The goal of her new organization was to give students a chance to reach out to classmates in crisis. The team would help and support classmates who were seriously ill, had experienced a death of a friend or in the family, or struggled with isolation or loneliness.

When B.I.O.N.I.C. was first created, there were two teams – the hospitalization team and the loss team.

Forty students signed up.

“When she started B.I.O.N.I.C, I had thought, ‘How brilliant is that?”’ Shrader said. “By starting this program, kids could be compassionate and were able to fill the missing gap at Green Mountain.”

Support for B.I.O.N.I.C. grows

Over the past six years, the B.I.O.N.I.C. team has grown to include  four  teams with 150 student members.

The new student team sends a “survival kit,” which includes a GMHS pencil, a Snickers bar, a welcome card and an invitation to the new student lunch, to a new student and hosts a new student lunch once a month.

The extended illness team targets students who have missed more than five days of school. They call students at home to check in on them, send a packet to help them make up homework, and, if appropriate, visit the student at home.

The hospitalization team will contact the family to see if they can visit. If they can, they will bring a gift to the student to let them know other Green Mountain students are thinking of them.

The school tragedy team reaches out to other schools or communities that experience different tragedies, such as shootings. Recently, the tragedy team sent a 24-foot banner to Arizona signed by Green Mountain students to let the community there know that they were thinking of them. It was a gesture aimed at supporting the community there in the aftermath of the shooting that killed six and seriously injured U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

B.I.O.N.I.C is also spreading worldwide. She said it’s in about 400 schools, including schools in China, Tanzania, Virgin Islands, Qatar, Barbados and Belize.

Even after students graduate, B.I.O.N.I.C. is a big part of students’ lives and they continue to live the goals, she said. Austin said that young people truly want to make a difference.

“I remember one of my students when she went off to college, a girl on her floor’s family member had passed,” Austin said. “Everyone else left her alone, but my student bought a Snickers bar to give to her. She just said, ‘I am thinking about you in this hard time.’”

Austin challenges her current B.I.O.N.I.C. members to make a difference for someone once a day, encouraging them to do even simple things, such as buy someone a cup of coffee just to make someone’s day better.

Changing role of school counselors

And counselors can use the help. Austin said it’s becoming harder for counselors to reach every child in need. Counselors are tapped to deal with an increasingly complicated set of issues, including family issues that affect students. With budget and program cuts to various mental health resources, counselors are doing more types of counseling that they are not necessarily trained to do.

“There’s more on our plates than ever before,” Austin said.

Austin said parents are vital to the overall well-being of students at school. She urged parents to get to know school counselors and talk to them about how their child is doing.

She said she understands there is more pressure on parents today to make sure their students are successful. She gets a lot of phone calls from parents wondering why she didn’t contact them about their student’s struggle in class. Austin said she just doesn’t have time to call every student’s parents about how they’re doing. Parents should also be in touch with their child’s teachers.

“We can help communicate with educators,” Austin said.

Despite the challenges of the job, Austin has no plans to retire any time soon.

“My goal in life is to make a difference in my students’ lives,” Austin said. “I would feel accomplished if I made a difference in one student’s life.”

Shrader believes that Austin has already made a difference in the lives of the students.

“She’s one of the people who truly makes a difference. She encourages kids to follow their dreams and not be a burden on society but to be a real contributor.”

For more information

Parents can learn more about the B.I.O.N.I.C. Team by watching the this YouTube video and this follow-up one or e-mail to get information on how to start a club at their school.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.