March 2020

Voices of RISCA School Counselor Leaders

By Eliza Bryant, Onna Holland and Joseph Batiano
We Are Essential Leaders
By Eliza Bryant

At Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts (TAPA), where I work, school counselors and other mental health professionals are viewed unequivocally as school leaders. At TAPA, this is due to a schoolwide holistic focus on student needs. If school administrators are serious about school counselor leadership, their first step must be along those lines: to center their missions around students’ post-secondary access, career preparation, social/emotional learning and mental health support. Each of these realms could easily be a challenging full-time job in any school, yet have historically been the weakest in districts where students need the most support. In Title I schools that primarily serve students of color, especially, the centrality of these elements is a social justice issue. To make sure these students get what they deserve, adults in emotionally supportive roles must be consulted in leadership and policy decisions.

I write this as a school counselor who frequently questions whether a school leadership role is something I can balance effectively with the other tenets of my job. I never anticipated serving as a school leader, and know that many of my fellow counselors are not interested in formal administration roles, either, which I completely respect and understand. I ended up as a school leader almost by accident. Our school is very young, with only four classes of graduated seniors, and I was their first school counselor. Given these circumstances, I was more involved in the creation of systems and structures than counselors might typically be, which gradually led to a more formal leadership role. I believe that as a school we will eventually reach a place where I can shift away from this formal role, but I am thankful for what I have learned about school counselor leadership over the past five years at TAPA. I encourage any fellow counselors with a similar opportunity to take it, even if only for a little while.  
Those of us who are drawn to our profession often have different strengths than those typical of school leaders, and for me, working in a leadership position places me almost constantly in what is referred to as the risk zone – and more often than I would like, the danger zone. One way I’ve been able to adapt is to create a role like that of the “trusted advisor:” one who is present at and privy to leadership discussions, but is more judicial than executive in nature. It is in this context that I have been able to stay true to my support role, yet advocate from my counselor’s perspective as big decisions are made.

Through a version of the “guidance counselor as trusted adviser” model, we have been able to prioritize postsecondary access at TAPA. One example is the expansion of our dual enrollment program over the past five years, which now has more than 80 percent of the senior classes graduating with college credits. Our building schedule is built around providing seniors with a block during which they can leave campus to attend these classes, and our budget contains a line item for college textbooks. At our leadership meetings, I have used our data to directly link participation in this program to first-generation college student success, which our administration has heard, believed and supported. Combined with the amazing teacher leadership of our Spanish teacher, who now coordinates the daily aspects of the program, the collaboration has allowed for dramatic expansion.

Other examples of school counselor leadership allowing for systemic programming have been related to alumni support, instructional and exam policies and the creation of a college preparation course. As a school, this has allowed us to keep postsecondary preparation, social justice and mental health – which we view as intricately connected in all sorts of complex ways – at the center of student-related discussions.

As with all school designs, one size never fits all. At almost every school across the state, educators wear many hats and often have to juggle duties that aren’t directly related to the primary goals they are trying to achieve. This can be especially challenging in light of limited resources, large caseloads and increasing student needs. I hope that, over time, we can place more school counselors in each school such that we will have more time available to lead. The voice of the school counselor is the voice of postsecondary access, career preparation, social/emotional learning and mental health support, all of which belong at the forefront of our work for more equitable education.
Eliza Bryant is guidance counselor and director of student pathways at Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts (TAPA).
Read more on leadership from Rhode Island school counseling leaders.
Onna Holland: I have grown to see our role as collaborators, leaders, advocates, teachers and change agents in support of student success. A school counselors’ job is a complex menagerie of support, organization, advocacy, caring, empathy and leadership. School counselors can have a large impact on a student's learning, development and environment. To create the biggest impact for students, school counselors need to have the ability to collaborate with teachers, administrators, families and the community. This takes strong leadership skills. Here are some ways you can step into a leadership role.

Read Onna Holland’s article
Joseph Batiano: “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” Helen Keller. As the lone school counselor, these words rang true for me upon arrival at my place of employment nearly eight years ago. At first, I felt as if I had to do it all myself. Little did I know of local and national associations at the time of employment. I knew no one where I worked. However, despite the odds thrown at me, I persisted. Persistence is one of the several traits that I feel is needed as a leader. Gather a team of coworkers who share your goals for seeing the success of our students. I, fortunately, learned about my coworkers’ strengths and how I could use those strengths collaboratively to ensure the successes of our students.

Read Joseph Batiano’s article