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 spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.