PHS counselors thrive in face of challenges

PHS counselors thrive in face of changes and challenges
Posted on 11/29/2022
This is the image for the news article titled PHS counselors thrive in face of changes and challengesIn the face of a changing educational landscape and wide variety of challenges, the Piscataway High School Counseling Department continues to excel in helping students clear hurdles on their way to adulthood.

The counselors are finding creative methods and resources to deal with:

• The fallout of two years of struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic, including learning loss and mental health strain.
• The increased academic pressures and complexity involved in the college admissions process, also compounded by COVID.
• A societal shift toward renewing the focus on trade schools and careers for non-college-bound seniors.

“The Piscataway High School Counseling Department does tremendous work in guiding our students through so many difficult areas of life,” said Superintendent Dr. Frank Ranelli. “From academic check-ins, to planning for the future, to personal triumphs and tragedies, to just being a sounding board for day-to-day issues. I’m very proud of how hard our counselors work to make sure our students are not going through these struggles alone.”

This busy department is headed by Theresa Edmondson, Supervisor of College, Career, and Personal Guidance. She oversees a group of 12 counselors who help steer students through their daily academic and scheduling issues while also helping to set a roadmap to the future.

Two teams of five counselors work with students by grade level, following one cohort of students from freshman to senior years so they can get to know the needs and goals of the students personally. Another counselor works with students on character education.

PHS counselors
Piscataway High School Counseling Department. From left are Mark Kiang, Nicole Martelli, Brian Wischusen, Rodney West, Jill Fraticelli, Stephanie Rogers, Shirley Aviles, Nicole Duarte, Brielle Goldstein, Kelly Chilakos, Richard Brown, Theresa Edmondson, and Shar-Mekka Pernell. Not pictured is Patricia Brewster.

The 12th counselor is a new position created for the 2021-22 school year to work exclusively on career and college planning. This position helps drive a specific district goal this year of helping meet the needs of non-college-bound students.

“We’ve worked with non-college-bound learners before, of course, but it wasn’t such a big focus,” Edmondson said. “Now we’re making it more a part of the vocabulary. We’re saying if you want to have a career, if you want to go to technical school, it’s exciting.”

Ranelli pushed to create the new position last year, and one of the district’s goals for the 2022-23 school year is to “enhance and expand opportunities for non-college-bound learners.”

“I want to thank the Board of Education for supporting me when I came to them to ask for this additional counselor position,” Dr. Ranelli said. “I don’t know of another district in the county has a counselor just dedicated to college and career planning. I’m really happy to know that it’s making such a difference.”

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The Counseling Department is hosting an event called “What’s Next” on Dec. 7 to focus specifically on career opportunities for non-college-bound learners. PHS will host representatives of trade schools, constructions unions, and companies who have careers that do not require a college degree. Speakers will meet with juniors and seniors that morning in the auditorium, then students will have a chance to meet with them one-on-one in the cafeteria in a career fair setting.

PHS has also hosted representatives of FedEx and Lincoln Tech to talk to students about career and trade-school opportunities, and juniors will be attending Construction Industry Career Day in May at Raritan Center in Edison.

Kelly Chilakos, who is in her second year as the college and career counselor, said the main focus for a long time was to emphasize that students strive to go to college, but that is changing.

“It is necessary for us to make this shift so that we are helping all Pway graduates achieve their post-high-school goals and connecting them to the appropriate resources,” she said. “Also, with the increasing cost of college education and the rising need for employees in trades and other non-college-bound careers, we want to make sure that our students are prepared to succeed in any post high school plan is.”

Chilakos and Edmondson said it is crucial to send the message that not every student needs to go to a four-year college.

“In the past, if a student wasn’t going to college, they may not have felt proud about their plans. And that’s what we’re trying to change,” Edmondson said. “We’re trying to make students feel proud about going to technical school or going to work full-time. It’s good to have a career! And they may end up making more money over time.”

Last year, there were even two scholarships awarded to PHS graduates who were going into the trades. One awarded money to be used for uniforms and other necessities, and one was targeted specifically for a student who was becoming an electrician’s apprentice to help purchase tools.

“So even on scholarship night and senior awards night, they were celebrated, too,” Edmondson said. “So if we could get more of those, that would be really exciting.”

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Proud School Counselors

The addition of a counselor to focus exclusively on college and career issues has freed up other counselors’ time to focus more on mental health.

“The mental health problems are really high, especially since COVID,” Edmondson said. “They do a lot of coping skills with the students. There’s a lot of social emotional learning happening with the counselors and the students in small groups and one-on-one.”

She said that because of the two years of lost time, “it’s almost like we have 10th-graders applying for college. In a pre-COVID world, our seniors had more face time with people. These students really missed a year and a half of high school. So we’re really trying to cope with that.”

Chilakos said counselors are also still dealing with gaps in college and career programming due to COVID.

“Most of the fall was spent on filling in the gaps for the seniors,” she said. “One goal was to increase the access to college opportunities, which we accomplished by increasing our in-school college visits.”

In-school college visits are when a college admissions counselor comes to PHS to speak to students about what their college has to offer. The PHS counselors have doubled these visits from the level they were before COVID and added spring visits for juniors.

“These in-school visits assist students who are unable to actually get on a college campus,” Chilakos said.

PHS also hosted a workshop for families on filling out the FAFSA form, which is crucial for students seeking financial aid or loans.

* * *

Kean instant decision students
Piscataway High School seniors who were accepted to Kean University on Instant Decision Day on Nov. 22, 2022. From left are Kwyne Pugh, Aisha Mansoor, Rida Hashmi, Kean Admissions Counselor Jose Rodriguez, Caety Pineda Romero, Tasneem Abdelsayed, Nga Giang, Jasmin Milian. Also accepted were Ariam Lorenzo, Bhavya Patel, and Kishan Patel.

Mental health issues and college counseling go hand-in-hand with academic counseling because the pressure to get good grades or to get into college are often what causes the most stress for teens.

“They get so stressed with all of the deadlines and academic issues,” Edmondson said. “A lot of the students have at least one Advanced Placement class and a lot of them have honors classes. There are so many deadlines and outside voices that we are trying to tame. So we are telling them, ‘Just breathe. You are going to get into college.’ We do a lot of reassurance.”

PHS senior Vir Patel, a student representative to the Board of Education, told the Board at their Nov. 3 meeting that the counselors have gone above and beyond.

“The College Counseling Department is working overtime,” he said. “It’s just incredible the amount of support that they have given. Not just to me personally, but to everyone. I don’t know how they do it. It’s just a really reassuring feeling because it is a stressful process. They make sure we don’t overstress.”

Counselors use a variety of techniques to help students relax, such as playing calming music while working with them on college applications, or introducing them to the Calm app, which uses guided meditation and other relaxation methods.

Rahiim Hashmi, a PHS junior representative to the Board, said the Counseling Department is already discussing the future with 11th-graders.

“That’s something we’re going to be doing next year,” he said, “and they’ve been doing a really, really good job. Not just with college planning but with career planning for students who are not leaning toward a college path.”

Students can also come into the counseling office during their lunch periods to work on college essays and applications, and often find comfort in one another.

“Some I think come in just because they feel better to know there are other kids who are stressed, and they end up helping each other figure out problems or application issues,” Edmondson said. “Some students who really didn’t talk to each other before come in and end up connecting over the stress.”

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Another new initiative this year is the Parent Advisory Council, which counselors use to gather feedback and to help spread important information by word of mouth.

“We’re saying we want to help you, but we need your help, too,” Edmondson said.

There are about 20 families involved in the council, and many have students at PHS now, as well as graduates and students in lower grades.

“They were all really excited about helping,” Edmondson said. “They really shared a lot of, ‘This helped my student, you should try this.’ They really helped each other, too, which was nice. We’re really looking forward to how that pans out the rest of the year.”

Other outreach efforts include a monthly newsletter and a Padlet web page where important information and updates are posted for students and parents through the Schoology learning platform. Making resources easy to find is key to making sure students have everything they need at easy disposal.

“The kids seem to be responding really well to the things that we’re doing,” Edmondson said. “As long as we keep getting good feedback from the kids, I think we’re doing the right thing.”