A Positive Influence, Day By Day

Eye on LSSI, Winter 2007 ( Download PDF of entire publication)

Kris Nielsen, program supervisor of the School-Based program, reads an excerpt from 'Where the Sidewalk Ends' by Shel Silverstein to fifth- grade students at Riverdale School in Rock Falls. Kris Nielsen strolls to the front of the classroom, instantly winning the rapt attention of her fifth-grade audience at Riverdale Elementary School in Rock Falls. She is about to present another segment of “character education,” a program designed to help students learn how making good, character-building choices positively impacts their lives and those around them.

Giving classroom presentations to children in kindergarten through 12th grade is a small part of Nielsen’s overall responsibilities as a supervisor and counselor with School-Based Services, a program of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI). LSSI has provided school-based services to schools in Carroll, Lee, Ogle and Whiteside Counties since 1984.

Nielsen summarizes the focus of previous sessions.

“In September, we talked about respect; in October, we discussed sharing; and now we’re talking about caring. So, how are we doing?” she asks.

A half-dozen hands fly up amidst a chorus of enthusiastic, common sense ideas.

“If someone gets hurt, help him or her out.”

“Think of others before yourself.”

“Don’t judge others.”

“Do your best every day.”

“Help little kids, do what the teacher says and respect the school and school grounds.”

Justin says he shows respect to his teacher by following classroom rules, while Andrew announces he joined people together for basketball at recess after learning it’s important to include everyone in a group.

Helping yourself first, then others

Nielsen commends the student’s altruistic efforts then moves on to another topic — the personal benefits of having good physical and mental health — helping themselves first so they can better help others.

Fifth-grade teacher, Marion Ulferts acknowledges the exertion of her small but very cohesive class of 10 and the positive influence of Nielsen’s energizing presentations and her availability as a group counselor or individual counselor when needed.

“The kids do a lot of things they talk about. They relate character education classes to stories they read, such as one about Jane Goodall [the renown primatologist and conservationist] that show how one person can make a difference.”

The philosophy of LSSI’s School-Based Program is based on an educational premise that students who receive help and support to deal with pressing personal concerns will be able to focus their energy more efficiently on their schoolwork and the important task of developing academically, socially and emotionally.

Currently there are six LSSI counselors working hand-in-hand with 15 public schools in Lee, Whiteside and Ogle Counties to provide prevention and intervention services, classroom presentations, group and individual counseling to students, and faculty in-services as needed.

Judy Nettz directs the program, while Nielsen, a counselor for nine years, is in her second year as supervisor.

“We are the program, and we want to make it all that the teachers and administrators want it to be. Then, they will call us back,” she says.

Nielsen explains that LSSI has a one-year contract with elementary and middle schools in Polo, Rock Falls, Dixon and Stillman Valley and a three-year contract with Sterling District Unit #5. The contracts in Dixon and Stillman Valley also include their high schools. Funding comes through the United Way, the 708 Board and contracts with schools.

LSSI adapts services to each individual school or classroom, and counselors have heavy caseloads. Some counselors are assigned to more than one site so they can meet as many needs as possible, although some schools still have a waiting list.

“We have a great group of counselors who take their jobs very seriously to be that positive influence, day by day,” Nielsen says. “We’re there, we’re consistent, and we’re making a difference.”

Allison Wittenauer, a counselor, splits her week between four schools: Franklin School in Sterling, and Dillon Elementary, East Coloma and Montmorency in Rock Falls. Stephanie Haugh is a counselor and assistant grant coordinator at Monroe Center in Stillman Valley. Melissa Jacoby is based full-time at Dixon High School, and Jan Burgess spends five days a week at Jefferson Elementary in Sterling.

Cami Hartman travels between Washington School in Sterling and Centennial Elementary and Aplington Middle School in Polo. Carrie Snow covers Lincoln School and Challand Middle School in Sterling and Merrill School in Rock Falls. Kris Nielsen is also responsible for Rock Falls Middle School and Riverdale School.

Offering help schools can’t offer

Kids may have problems with academics, social skills, behavior and anything else that interferes with them doing the best they can in their classroom. Nielsen says that with so many family issues, divorce, and more and more children living with grandparents, there’s a growing need to help them develop more coping and problem-solving skills.

Teachers, principals and parents have referred students to the program. Parent permission is required for children under 12 years old to participate.

Counselor Cami Hartman gets most of her referrals from the teachers at Polo Schools, where she’s based two days a week. She assists about 30 students between Centennial and Aplington and another 60 in Sterling.

“Sometimes parents will call the school and say their child has problems and request services, but then don’t return the paperwork. But if the child is in the program, parents usually give good feedback,” she says.

Hartman works with students of all ages and situations.

“I see a lot of inappropriate behaviors in little children regarding hygiene or table manners that for some reason weren’t taught along the way. Other children make fun of them,” she says. “There’s other issues — not controlling anger, exploding in classrooms or getting physical with others.”

Hartman appreciates the school staff, whom she says care about the students. “Every teacher wants to do the best for every child,” she says.

She also runs a 10-week program called “Healthy Relationships” for sixth-grade girls. Over the lunch hour, the group discusses self-esteem, social skills, conflict resolution and safety in all types of relationships.

Centennial Principal Sandy Wilkens and Aplington Principal Andy Faivre say support for Cami and the program is tremendous.

“We expect students to come to school to be able to learn,” Wilkens says. “I knew we needed someone [to help students with non-academic problems]. The kids are enthusiastic to see her and more receptive knowing they’re going to someone they enjoy talking to.”

“Cami offers something we can’t offer. She’s trained to support kids on a different level,” Faivre explains.

Counselor Melissa Jacoby says she receives a multitude of self- or peer-referrals to the program at Dixon High School. By Illinois law, 12- to 17-year-old students may meet with a counselor up to five times without parent permission or knowledge. After the fifth meeting, parental consent is necessary to continue. Jacoby says that permission is not always given, which prevents the students from receiving additional counseling.

“I see 14 students regularly on a weekly basis and have seen 121 students since the beginning of the year,” she says.

She often helps students in crisis, which could be as serious as a student threatening suicide. Other issues are easily resolved in one or two sessions. Jacoby provides counseling for students, including athletes, who get in trouble for using alcohol or tobacco, or have other drug involvement. She also teaches classes on anger management.

Every counselor’s goal is for a student to experience a successful resolution of his or her issue.

Counselor Jan Burgess, Jefferson School in Sterling, worked several months with a young girl who experienced the death of someone close to the family. While working through the grief process, the student created a memory book and became comfortable talking about the fun they had had, as well as the illness and ultimate death of the loved one.

“She couldn’t wait to come and work on the book. [In her own way], she says that the pain doesn’t hurt as much as it used to,” Burgess says.

When parents reap the benefits of their children’s success, it is twofold. A parent referred her child to Burgess because it was hard for the student to express the depth of sadness at the break-up of the family. They worked together for three months until the child was in a better situation.

“I don’t know exactly what was said [in counseling sessions], but I was happy with how comfortable my child felt with Jan. I would like people who need services to know that someone is always there for them,” the mother says.

For more information, call 815/288-4108.