Counselors advise, assist students

For Catawba County school counselors, assisting students isn't about simply sitting down and talking about their feelings.

Counselors in the school system try to ensure every student has the emotional and mental support they need to learn on a daily basis.

Officials from Catawba County Schools and Newton-Conover City Schools said these positions are vital in the school system, especially during times when economic woes impact students, as well as their parents.

"If you're worried about the health of a parent, that doesn't stay at home," said Dr. Paul Holden, CCS executive director of student services.

"You bring that to school with you."

With practically every school system statewide feeling the pinch of a tight budget, these counselors expanded their roles in the system and are donning more "hats" now than ever before.

"People would be shocked about what counselors do," said Melanie Elrod, NCCS student services director. "They're everything from a mother to an academic advisor."

NCCS has eight counselors within the school system. Newton-Conover High School has three; Newton-Conover Middle School has two; Shuford and Thornton elementary schools have one each; and Newton-Conover Health Science High School and South Newton Elementary School share one counselor.

Catawba County Schools has about 44 counselors among the system's elementary, middle and high schools, as well as Catawba Rosenwald School and Challenger Early College High School. Although a counselor's role varies depending on school-grade level, Holden said a counselor's primary job is crisis intervention.

"Situations come up with kids in unsafe situations at home or other complex issues that make their way into schools," Holden said.

That means counselors must undergo extensive training to correctly assess and handle everyday problems.

Elrod said counselors are required to have their school counselor license, as well as a master's degree. Many counselors completed two-year master's programs that included internships in school counseling.

"I want people to realize that these people are very well trained," Elrod said.

Katrina Unverfehrt is in her second year as a counselor at NCMS.

"My favorite thing is when a student comes to me and says, 'I want to talk,'" Unverfehrt said.

That, however, doesn't always happen. Students are sometimes reluctant to share their feelings or problems with others, so counselors, like Unverfehrt, rely on referrals from teachers who notice student problems in the classroom.

Those problems are as diverse as the students themselves. Holden said counselors talk to students about everything from disagreements with friends to the death of a loved one.

Students at Mill Creek Middle School experienced a tragedy Feb. 7 when they learned eighth-grader Samantha Wheeler was killed in an apparent murder-suicide. Extra counseling support was called to the school to prepare for students' reaction to Wheeler's death.

Working one-on-one with students is only part of counselors' jobs. They are involved in a variety of different programs and initiatives throughout the school system, including drop-out prevention efforts, anti-bullying campaigns and food-supply drives, so students don't go hungry during weekends.