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Elementary school recognized nationally for counseling model
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Chestnut Mountain Elementary School is being recognized for a category not often awarded in education — counseling.

The school is one of 85 being recognized nationally by the American School Counselor Association as an exemplary model of school counseling. The designation — a Recognized ASCA Model Program — emphasizes data-driven counseling lesson plans. Chestnut Mountain is the first in Hall County to receive the designation.

“The first thing we did is called perceptual data, or what’s perceived as a need,” said Sydney Holmes, Chestnut Mountain’s guidance counselor. “We thought attendance and tardy numbers were a problem, but it was less than 3 percent when I crunched the numbers. Then I decided to figure out what we really needed.”

Several years ago Hall County Schools adopted the American School Counseling Association National Model, which includes standards for what counselors should teach, how counselors should spend their time and how to identify needs in the school.

In 2008, Holmes studied Criterion-Referenced Competency Test scores, benchmark scores and grades. She also gave a survey, asking all the teachers in the school to rate their top three concerns about student performance. She then met with the teachers grade by grade and talked about the particular problems they were seeing.

“They said students weren’t taking responsibility for their school work or behavior,” she said. “They also didn’t have the motivation to achieve.”

The feedback varied by grade level. Teachers said first-graders had poor work habits — making careless mistakes, rushing through work and not taking lessons seriously. Holmes created a session called “Doing Your Best.”

Second graders had impulsive behavior and poor self-awareness. Teachers voiced concerns about repeating directions multiple times and thinking students weren’t paying attention. Holmes talked to the students about “listening and following directions.”

In third grade, students didn’t treat themselves, classmates and adults with respect. Holmes backed this up with data about discipline referrals throughout the year and created the seminar “Respect for Self and Others.”

Teachers noted fourth-graders lacked academic responsibility and motivation to learn. Some said students would rather take a zero grade on work than complete it and blamed parents or others for not having complete homework. Holmes taught them “academic accountability.”

Fifth-graders struggled with negative peer pressure and poor decision-making. Teachers said students know the right thing to do but make bad choices without thinking about the consequences. Holmes created the lesson “Doing the Right Thing.”

“The fun thing was finding the lessons, which surprised me more than anything,” Holmes said. “I was able to find lessons so specific to what I wanted to teach, and they had the ASCA counseling standards attached.”

For the fifth-grade lesson on decision-making, she used clips from the movies “A Christmas Story” and “Liar, Liar” to talk about peer pressure, lying and cheating.

“In ‘A Christmas Story,’ where the kid’s tongue gets stuck on the metal pole, it was a prank that somebody thought was funny and led to a terrible accident,” she said. “By using these clips, you get at where the kids are. You can’t just stand in front of the room and talk to them. They don’t respond to that.”

Holmes also created counseling groups for English-language learners and students with anger problems. Throughout 2008 and 2009, she tracked CRCT scores,

discipline referrals and benchmark tests to figure out results from her counseling sessions across the grades.

“We learned that you really need to look at the data,” said Sabrina May, Chestnut Mountain principal. “There’s so much that impacts a child’s learning process, and it’s not just about what goes on at school. Helping to address issues at home played a vital role in helping increase achievement.”

Conducting student and teacher surveys gave them a way to voice concerns, May said.

“Students came to the understanding that we care about them as individuals and their learning, and the teachers realized we care about their opinions,” she said. “Our kids love Sydney. She’s really connected and able to build relationships with them.”