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How A Georgia Middle School Counselor's Past Work With Inmates Inspires Her Today

Laura Ross, a counselor at Five Forks Middle School in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and the American School Counselor Association's 2020 Counselor of the Year. (Courtesy)
Laura Ross, a counselor at Five Forks Middle School in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and the American School Counselor Association's 2020 Counselor of the Year. (Courtesy)

School counselors are often on the front lines in helping young people manage feelings of stress and anxiety about all that’s happening in the world around them.

The American School Counselor Association recommends 250 students per school counselor. But for Laura Ross, 600 students at Five Forks Middle School in Lawrenceville, Georgia, look to her for guidance.

Now she’s being recognized for her extraordinary work. Ross was recently honored as the ASCA’s 2020 Counselor of the Year for her leadership, collaboration and advocacy, calling her a “true champion” for students.

Working at an adult men’s correctional facility drove Ross to seek out a career as a school counselor. Her caseload at the prison involved guiding and working with gang members.

The more she talked with the incarcerated men, whom she calls “some of the most intelligent, talented, charismatic people” she’s ever worked with, she learned just how many of them recalled feeling disconnected from their education at school.

“A lot of them expressed that [school] wasn’t a place where they belonged and nobody kind of really cared if they were there or not,” she says. “But yet they had so many strengths that had they really connected to their education, I think could have provided some great positive opportunities for them.”

Hearing these stories over and over was the “aha” moment when she says she “knew that I had to get into schools and start working with these guys as they were younger.”

As one of the top counselors in the nation, her advice to parents is threefold: Understand school counselors are here to help your child achieve success, keep the lines of communication open with the school, and truly listen to your child because “what they’re dealing with are true for them at that time.”

Interview Highlights

On her efforts to decrease discipline referrals, specifically among black and Latino students

“We had, for a couple of years, worked with supporting those students in small groups to help deal with whatever challenges they were facing, setting some goals so they have a positive direction to go. But we realized that we have to be more encompassing of everybody in the school building and making sure that those supports are there. … We have a very diverse student population and our staff isn’t as diverse. We’re all working with students who have different experiences and different backgrounds from us and really understanding how to connect with our students, be culturally responsive to them, and also being aware of our implicit bias and how that can kind of sneak in to our day to day practices, in our teaching and our interactions with students. And if we’re aware of them, then we can kind of interrupt those and make sure that we are making decisions that are equitable across the board for all students.”

On working at an adult men’s correctional facility and how it led her to be a middle school counselor

“It really is kind of the reason why I became a school counselor. I was a social work major and I interned at the correctional facility and then worked two years there afterward as one of the counselors and also security threat group coordinator, which meant I helped to identify members of hate groups and gangs, and so most of my caseload ended up being gang members. Working with those men, some of the most intelligent, talented, charismatic people that I’ve worked with, but as I talked with them, what I learned from just story after story is that they’ve just had no connection to school. They didn’t really have anybody in their family or community where that was what they did is they graduated high school and were successful and maybe pursued further education. And they also didn’t feel connected to school.

“…So that’s really how I ended up becoming a school counselor as I wanted to make sure that I was in schools and connecting with students and connecting them to their education so that they could see how they related to their education and how that could help them and have positive opportunities in the future with their education as well.”

On why it’s crucial to have counseling staff for middle schoolers

“I’ve even seen it in late elementary school. I used to be an elementary school counselor, but kind of that fifth-grade year and maybe even fourth grade, but definitely as they’re rolling into middle school, is seeing students kind of lose that self-confidence or just feeling that they were adequate to achieve and be successful, so that becomes a part of it. But also in middle school, the social piece is so important and trying to figure out how to be your own self and be you. But also, you want to fit in as well. We see students who that’s a struggle for them and so really finding their place of sort of self-awareness and having that self-confidence, but also the social awareness and perspective-taking and sort of interacting with diverse peers and then responsible decision making, all of those things, would have combined together, and some of that is in their social-emotional development and some of it overlaps with their goals for the future and post-secondary readiness and some of it overlaps with their academic performance.

“Having school counselors, those are the three domains that we really are supporting students in and really being there to help them, sort of not telling them what to do, but just helping guide them in being that sounding board for them and helping them sort of even reframe and start to see themselves more positively and have more confidence so that they can interact positively with peers and they can make good decisions about their academics, the other extracurriculars, and they’re working with others. So we kind of have a hand in all of that in middle school that then kind of helps them be prepared to then make that leap into high school and that journey into figuring out what to do after high school or college or a career, whatever they choose to do.”

On her advice to parents and guardians to support the work of school counselors

“I think first and foremost, school counselors are here to be an integral part of your students’ education. Some students we are providing small group support for, but just know that this is about sort of the whole child well-being. When a school counselors working with your student, it is not something’s wrong with your student. We just want to make sure that every student has all the supports that they need to be successful.

“Two, I think that a big thing is just listening and being open to what your child is sharing. It’s a hard time because it’s middle school and so they want to kind of pull away from parents a little bit. But also when they do share or share with a counselor and the counselor helps them share with a parent, just know that their feelings, their thoughts and what they’re dealing with are true for them at that time. That’s their reality, and so we want to help them through that the best way possible.

“… And then third, I just think that being a team member with a school then a school working with parents, I mean, we all have to kind of be that team together to support students. We all want what’s best for our students and our kids, so just make sure that we’re all communicating and working together and deciding really what’s best for that student so that they can be successful. So just keeping those communication lines open.”

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKennaSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

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