What is the Role of the Coventry School Psychologist?
Coventry Public Schools has opened and for many students, it is a fresh start in new courses with new teachers. It is also a fresh start with new sports teams and clubs and extra-curricular activities. Success may be measured with a letter grade on a report card, selection to a varsity team, or with the achievement of other quantitative measures
For a few students, the start of school just continues the challenges they face in their daily lives. It is much more difficult to measure a student’s emotional success – how well has the student navigated home and school, and perhaps work, to overcome a variety of social and economic challenges that impact academic success. A measure of success may be more qualitative than quantitative.
At Coventry High School, there are services in place to support students who are at risk emotionally and behaviorally. This summer I spoke with Lou Ruffolo, a Coventry High School Psychologist, who is a member of the Unified Learning Services Team (ULST). On the team are another Psychologist and a Social Worker. On the department website is this motto, “The secret of education is respecting the pupil,” a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. This sums up the role of the School Psychologist.
Lou spent 13 years in the Coventry School District working with the elementary student population. Three years ago he moved to the high school. Based on these assignments, he has been in a unique situation with fellow students at the high school with whom he worked at the elementary school.
A student’s emotional well-being may be assaulted in a variety of ways in the classroom, corridors, and cafeteria. It can take the form of an insult, arguments with fellow students, bullying, aggression, and challenges to teachers and each other. It may be direct or via social media. It expresses itself both in and out of the classroom and often results in academic work not completed high absenteeism, and course credit loss. In general, the student is not prepared to learn.
Lou’s primary role is to support students with an IEP (Individual Education Plan) or 504 students. Last year he found that 64% of his time was spent with students without an IEP or any school supports in place. Let’s look at the primary role of School Psychologists first.
The Psychologists test and evaluate students to determine eligibility and continuing eligibility for special education services. They monitor student performance toward goals, they counsel IEP students, and counsel students who are in other programs, such as Life Skills, Transition, and social behavior /emotional programs. They also work directly with teachers to support the students in these programs.
In addition to this caseload, students are referred to the School Psychologists by the school administrative team, and teachers and staff members. Sometimes mental “first aid” is as simple as listening to a student and showing empathy and validating the student’s frustrations.
Lou Ruffolo has a simple philosophy: be the kind of teacher or facility member that you wish you had when you were in school. When he goes to work each day, he tries to be that person.
A second role of the Psychologist is crisis management. A student may make a comment or post something on social media. At least 75% of these comments raise a question about the student’s own safety. These students may walk into the Psychologist’s office, request a meeting, or be referred by a teacher or administrator, or parent.
A third role for Lou is his role as part of the crisis management system for students in distress. He trains others in the district on how to manage students in crisis.
What type of problems are our students having? On this list is substance abuse with prescription medications, alcohol or marijuana use; social media misuse that fuels drama and conflict in the high school; and lack of readiness to learn. Students lack study skills, organization skills and demonstrate that they really do not understand how to be a student and how to be successful. In the classroom, these issues play out in disruptions, conflict with peers and teachers, and academic struggles.
Since many of these activities are reactive, Lou and the team are part of the “Connections Project.” The Coventry High School uses a survey developed in Burrillville that screens students. Research has demonstrated that students that have connections (with outside-school adults, teachers, peers, etc.) are more resilient; they have a structured support system. This survey was implemented two years ago with the sophomore class. This year the sophomores and juniors were surveyed. In 2016-2017, sophomores, juniors, and seniors will be surveyed. So the survey allows the school to identify students who are high-risk; it also validates that students who already exhibit behavioral problems have low connections. The Psychologists can then proactively reach out to students and help them enhance their connections.
How is success measured? Lou has seen some students graduate that he worked with when they were in pre-school. It is an “amazing” thing to see the student walk across the stage at URI’s Ryan Center. Success is measured when the Unified Basketball team won its state championship, and the team members were given jackets to wear. Seeing the students in the corridor being identified as “athletes” not as “special education” students brings a note of pride to the ULSS team.
Success is measured when a student stops in the office to say, “thanks,” or a parent sends a special message of thanks.
Success is measured when a student who did not want any help has built trusting relationships with the ULSS and proactively reach out for help.
During the 2016-2017 year, it is hoped that a Unified Theatre program may be started. The team has received a $500 grant to work with the Coventry Drama Coach to implement a program for the Unified Learning Support Services students.
And the team will continue its reactive work – serving the IEP population – but also find ways to be proactive in serving those who need emotional support.
In summary, a student’s success in Coventry High School may be measured in many ways. Academic measures are often easy to identify and data easy to obtain.
Measuring emotional health and improvement are more difficult but not impossible at Coventry High School. The support team and services are in place.