GREENFIELD — Every day, school guidance counselors are called upon to address a variety of student needs.
Often, they’re academic – setting a class schedule, preparing for graduation. Other times, counselors confront issues a bit more sensitive, such as the loss of a family member or trouble at home that begins to affect a student’s schoolwork.
At Greenfield-Central High School, Kim Kile heads a team of guidance counselors whose job descriptions she says some would find surprising.
Most people associate guidance counselors with college planning, and that’s certainly an important part of their job, Kile said.
But because there are no social workers at the high school level, guidance counselors also absorb that role, providing students not only with academic support but sometimes a safe haven or kind word of advice.
They are part coach, part principal – sometimes part parent – supporting students in whatever capacity they’re needed.
“It’s all going to be about what’s best for the student,” said Kile, who has been a counselor at G-C for 15 years. “That’s going to be our focus. When we’re working with a parent, a student, a teacher, an administrator, … that’s always going to be where we start.”
In recognition of National School Counseling Week, the Daily Reporter looks at the impact of school counselors through the eyes of those whose lives they’ve touched.
A show of support
Suzy Rutledge doesn’t remember a time when her mother wasn’t sick – or had hair.
Patty Heiden battled cancer for 10 years, most of her young daughter’s life, before succumbing to the illness in 2011.
Suzy, now a 16-year-old sophomore, was a freshman in high school at the time. Heiden was just 44. She’d been diagnosed with breast cancer twice, and the disease metastasized to her bones. Ultimately, complications with Heiden’s medication caused her liver to shut down.
Teachers tipped off Suzy’s guidance counselor, Sarah Knecht, that the young student was having a hard time.
Little things would set Suzy off – hearing students talking about arguing with their own moms, for example.
“You’re just like, ‘Really? You still have a mom. You need to stop,’” Suzy said. “I would love to fight with her.”
In her guidance counselor, Suzy found an escape from some of the overwhelming emotion she often experienced around her relatives.
“It’s easier for somebody who’s not family … to give you different advice,” she said. “They appeal more to your logic than to your, I guess, old memories, and trying to fix how you feel by … saying, ‘Well, she wouldn’t want you to be like that.’ Because family does that.”
Knecht helped Suzy process her grief, encouraging her to talk about her feelings and telling her it was OK to cry once in a while.
In the process, Knecht became a trusted confidant, Suzy said.
“It was just nice to know that if I was at school, and if something happened, that she was available,” Suzy said. “I didn’t have to do everything on my own, and she was always there.”
Suzy still has her bad days, but she has proved to be amazingly resilient and strong, Knecht said.
“This thing that shouldn’t happen to someone when they’re a freshman in high school – she hasn’t let it take her over,” she said.
Knecht is now helping Suzy plan her schedule to meet a career goal – one Suzy says is inspired by her mother.
Heiden worked as a baby sitter, and Suzy grew up surrounded by children. She now wants to be an elementary school teacher and will attend vocational classes at Walker Career Center next year to get some hands-on experience in teaching.
Knecht is proud to see Suzy succeeding in school, despite the loss she has suffered.
“She’s an amazing, strong person for her age,” she said.
But Suzy insists she couldn’t have done it alone.
“She’s a great counselor,” she said.
An academic 180
When Jakob Williams started high school, he had two priorities – neither of which involved academics.
The G-C athlete was focused on basketball and football. Class work came in at a distant third.
College was an option, but he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.
Today, things look a lot different.
Jakob, 17, is now a junior with a bright future ahead, due in part to a healthy amount of encouragement from his guidance counselor, Kim Kile.
“I was considering (college), but I wasn’t gung-ho about it,” he said “But as I got older and I talked to her more, I realized college is definitely where I need to go. I was a lazy student. She’s pushed me.”
Because Kile worked at the former Greenfield Middle School prior to coming to the high school, she has known Jakob and many of his classmates since they were fresh out of elementary school.
His attitude toward school has transformed in recent years, she said.
“It has been refreshing to watch him develop into this student who was a typical middle school boy who was very interested in athletics … to now putting all of the pieces together and seeing that there are things that need to be done to be prepared for life after school,” she said.
Kile has helped Jakob home in on his interests and craft a class schedule each semester that complimented his career goals.
Of course, it hasn’t always been easy. Williams started his high school career taking easy classes in an effort just to get through, he said. Now, he’s stepped up his schedule and is even retaking a couple classes in order to boost his GPA.
Jakob hopes to get into Ball State or Indiana University after graduation.
And when it comes to a career field, he’s shooting high. Williams wants to be a doctor.
It’s a dream that hits close to home.
Both of Jakob’s parents have heart conditions. His mother, a teacher in Indianapolis, learned in 2006 that only 25 percent of her heart was working, and she had a pacemaker inserted, Jakob said. His father suffered a heart attack at work a couple years ago and has had two stents placed in his heart.
“Watching my mom and dad and seeing them being helped by doctors, I kept on saying to myself, ‘I want to do that. I want to help people.’”
While he came to that decision somewhat late in his high school career, Kile assured him it wasn’t an impossible goal.
“When he was talking to me about where now he sees himself and what he wants to do, I said, ‘OK, there’s some work involved here, but let’s see how we can make this happen,’” she said. “He knows it’s going to be, maybe, a non-traditional way to medical school, … but we have a plan for that.”
Set on success
Guidance counselor Sherri Foster worked with Sara Langenberger for almost a year before she ever met the student suffering from a mysterious illness.
Sara, now 16, got sick when she was a freshman. She battled constant stomach pain and was unable to eat, which led to her losing 40 pounds. The longer she remained ill, the more her symptoms baffled her doctors.
“They had had medical hunches that it was certain things, and then it wasn’t,” she said. “As it progressed, it just got worse and worse. It didn’t get better.”
In October of her freshman year, Sara became a homebound student.
She was suffering from gallbladder inflammatory disease, which interfered with the digestion of her food. She didn’t receive the diagnosis until she’d missed almost an entire year of school.
Most students, when they become homebound, fall severely behind in their studies, Foster said. But Sara was different.
“… When students go homebound, you kind of assume they’re not going to get a lot of done, … but she was turning in biomedical projects, … she was doing French,” Foster said. “It was a pleasant surprise to have a student who was so committed. She did it, and she did it well.”
Sara had her gallbladder removed last February, and she readily recovered. Foster worked with Sara’s teachers to get extensions for her class work, and Sara worked through the summer to finish assignments that had lagged behind while she was sick.
When she returned to school last fall and met her guidance counselor for the first time, she had completed all her courses and maintained the requirements for an academic honors diploma.
She now has a 3.8 GPA and is involved with the drama club.
“Mrs. Foster helped me to just get back into school and gave me the edge … to start the year off right,” she said.
Sara has two years left before she graduates but already has her eye on UCLA. She wants to be a pre-med major.
Foster’s meetings with Sara are now about how to achieve that goal.
“The conversations are about the future,” she said. “It’s no longer catching up but kind of ‘What do I need to do now?’” Foster said.