School district increases support through cyber counseling
Every week, the Lake and Peninsula School District's two counselors teach lessons in classrooms across the district about social and emotional skills. But with 12 schools spread across an area about the size of West Virginia, the only way to reach every school is via the internet. The counselors record videos, and then the classes work through the discussion with their teacher. These lessons are a part of LPSD's cyber counseling initiative, which a grant from the U.S. Department of Education funds.
Counselors for the district used to spend the majority of their time rotating between sites, spending about a week in each location. But as state and federal funding for the school declined dramatically, it had to cut back on travel for counselors starting in 2012. Kasie Luke was a counselor throughout that transition. This year, she's a principal for Meshik School in Port Heiden and Chignik Bay School. She still oversees the grant.
"When the money decreased, we ended up visiting maybe once a semester to each of our schools. As funding continued to decrease and funding was allotted other places, we ended up visiting on an as-needed basis. So if teachers would refer, or if other principals would reach out in need, counselors would be able to travel," said Luke.
LPSD sought a grant to develop a cyber counseling program in order to reach all their students regularly, not just those with the greatest need. In 2015, the Department of Education awarded them a grant that totals $600,000 over three years. Most of that money goes toward counselors' salaries, curriculum and classroom materials.
"We're doing a lot of counseling over Skype and Google Hangouts. We use Blackboard Collaborate to do group lessons. So we're kind of streaming more toward using technology to be more effective at reaching all the students at a more cost- effective route," said Tim Welch, one of LPSD's counselors.
As the district has developed the program, they have ramped up the number of students with whom they meet. In the first year, counselors connected with groups or individuals 100 times. Last year, there were about 267 connections. In addition to sessions online, counselors still visit sites in person on an as-needed basis.
Making these connections over the internet has meant that students can meet with a counselor two and three times a week if necessary. Before, they could only have met a few times a semester at most. Plus, when a need arises, counselors can meet with students right away. LPSD superintendent Ty Mase said that the immediacy of cyber counseling is an improvement for everyone involved.
"We've seen a lot of burnout over the years with counselors living out of Action Packers and Rubbermaid totes and trying to meet the needs of each individual village. That means a lot of time flying and a lot of time away from home. So what we find is quality of life and the quality of what they can provide our students, they both go up," said Mase.
It is not a perfect solution. Welch said that there are occasionally disruptions in internet coverage, and it can also be difficult to adapt curriculum for their group counselling sessions so that he can teach them remotely. But he and Luke agree that with the resources available, it is the best option.
"I do think that the in-person component of school counseling can never ever be replaced. I wish we could be there in-person to build that rapport and connections with students, but at times when we really can't be there in person, I feel like this is the next best thing," said Luke.
This is the third and final year of the grant, and the district anticipates continuing cyber counseling — in addition to several other cyber initiatives. LPSD also offers students online courses, online tutoring and online speech pathology. The district's goal is to use the available technology to maximize its resources and best serve its students.