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School counselors serve as guides at the hub of the school
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Gainesville High lead counselor Wendy Savitz, right, and counselor Betsy Escamilla spend Friday morning enrolling a transfer student for the new school year.

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As she gets ready for her 30th and likely final year as a counselor at East Hall High School, Leigh Cumiskey expects it to be another active year of meetings with students and parents to help with academic goals and personal issues.

“It’s a zoo, but I think that in any counseling office, if it is quiet, then we’re not doing something right because it needs to be the hub of the school,” Cumiskey said.

Helping students understand what they need to do in high school to meet their goals is a major focus of the job, according to Cumiskey

“We have to make sure we’re guiding kids on where they want to go,” she said. “So, almost every young person has to have an almost individual plan, and that’s hard. I can’t even keep up.”

Wendy Savitz, lead counselor at Gainesville High School, said this time of year is “chaotic” for school counselors as they work to make sure students are taking the appropriate courses and are on track for graduation.

“It is not unusual for us to be here until 10 o’clock at night,” Savitz said. “Our job is to remove barriers for a child’s education and that can be academic, career and social or emotional. Basically, we are that child’s advocate. Certainly, when you get to high school, one of our key responsibilities is to help with high school planning and postsecondary planning.”

Gainesville High has four counselors for grades 10-12 and one for the ninth-grade center. Savitz said each counselor at the school has an average of 450 students assigned to them.

“I love the work, but there’s just not enough time in the day to do everything that we want to do,” Savitz said. “We have a lot of students, so it really is a matter of prioritizing, and some things that we want to do, we’re just not able to do. That’s frustrating. Every child is different, and every child comes to us with their unique challenges. And I guess that’s what makes this job so challenging.”

Savitz works with the Move On When Ready program at Gainesville High, where students can earn high school and college credit at the same time. She said she enjoys seeing a student graduate from high school with a year or more worth of college credits.

“It’s rewarding when I see a child do something they didn’t think that they could do or was possible for them,” she said. “It’s really showing them that pathway and showing them that they can do that.”

Another responsibility of counselors is dealing with issues that affect students’ lives and their ability to learn.

“School counselors deal with all kinds of personal problems from the bullying situations to issues that might come from home, to poverty, to abuse,” Cumiskey said. We are direct advocates for the students and then have to certainly communicate with (the Division of Family and Child Services) and sometimes the police and the court system.”

Hall County Schools has 46 school counselors and seven social workers serving students in all grade levels. The Gainesville City School System has 14 counselors at the elementary, middle and high school levels and three social workers.

Savitz said a counselor works more directly with students and works in the school setting, while a social worker predominately deals with family and home issues.

Cumiskey said she and Heidi Rider are the only counselors at East Hall and the social worker assigned to the school is part-time, leaving counselors to fill in the gaps.

“We make home visits,” she said. “If the kid’s not coming to school and we’re concerned, we’re getting our school resource officer and we’re getting in the car and knocking on doors. I don’t think people realize sometimes the poverty and the issues that young people face.”

While Cumiskey said drug abuse, teen pregnancy and other problems can wreak havoc on a teen’s life, she said the biggest issue she sees is “just the lack of one good adult in a child’s life.”

“We have so many kids who don’t have that,” she said. “The power that an individual can have over a young person can go in all different directions. People say, ‘Is it hard?’ And I say, ‘Absolutely, it’s hard, and there are days when we’re crying.’”

But Cumiskey said there are also times when she knows the investment is worthwhile.

“When witnessing a young person making a life-changing choice, it’s not just for them, but for a generation,” she said. “There’s joy there. And there’s a lot of sadness, too. There is never really a bad kid. It is really what we do to try to help that person overcome.”

At Lakeview Academy in Gainesville, school counselor Abby Boerner works with students from before kindergarten through high school on personal, social and emotional issues while another counselor guides the high school students academically.

Boerner, a licensed counselor with about 30 years of counseling experience, talks with lower school students in classroom settings about issues such as getting along with others and bullying. She does more individual counseling in the middle and upper schools, helping students with more specific issues. She also provides parent education programs.

As she deals with a variety of issues that include crisis counseling, Boerner said the growth of social media has an effect.

“It’s just getting along with others in a whole generation with all the technology we have now,” she said. “That’s a huge issue now that I see. Group texts and people getting their feelings hurt and pictures being shared that shouldn’t be, just kind of teaching them the right way to deal with that is important. I didn’t have to deal with that when I was growing up.”

Boerner said she spends about 30 minutes twice a month in each of the lower school classrooms talking to the students.

“I want them to have a good emotional foundation to help them deal with issues as they get older,” she said. “The middle and upper schools are a little bit different because I’m not in the classroom as much. They usually come to me or a group of friends will come to me. Children are our most precious resource, and if we can help them be safe and sound emotionally, I think it just helps them be more successful in academics and just life.”

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