Caleb Luecke, middle school counselor, interacting with a student in his office

A school counselor’s day is never dull. A typical day includes everything from managing student schedules and changes to supporting emerging student emotional needs to hall and lunch supervision to proactive, planned meetings with students and parents.

That last part – the proactive, planned annual meetings with students and parents – is somewhat unusual among public schools. Spring Lake Park Schools students in grades 7-12 can expect to meet with their counselor – who are counselors for personalized learning – at least once each year just to focus on a student’s future plans and parents are invited.

“We don’t just want to get students to graduation day,” says Megan Jahnke, associate principal at Spring Lake Park High School. “As an entire school district, we want to get them there with an idea of what they like to do, knowledge about how they learn best and an individualized plan for their next steps.”

Proactive, annual meetings

Intentional, annual one-to-one meetings between students and counselors began four years ago at Westwood Middle School and two years ago at Spring Lake Park High School. These conversations focus on the steps each student is taking in their journey toward their long-term future. There is a natural progression to the conversations each year.

At the middle school, the first months of the year are all about current schedules, getting to know students and determining where they are in their learning and overall well-being. Scheduled one-to-one meetings typically occur in December or January.

A Westwood staff member hugging and checking in on a student before the school day begins

Westwood Intermediate and Middle School staff members greet and check in with students each day as they walk through the front doors. 

In 7th grade, the conversations are much more about getting to know each other and checking in on the transition from 6th to 7th grade.

It's a lot to transition into middle school,” says Heather Krier, 7th grade counselor. “Students have a lot more teachers than they have had before. They are not necessarily with the same group of kids, and they have more responsibility, more choices. They are learning about themselves and how their choices impact their learning, credits and their success overall. We talk about how that transition is going and plans for 8th grade.”

In 8th grade, the conversations turn toward what courses they may want to take in high school and preparation for the overall transition to the high school experience.

“Through what they are doing in 8th grade they now have a direct line of sight to their future at the high school,” says Caleb Luecke, 8th grade counselor. "While the conversation is often around scheduling, it’s also about taking a little more ownership of their learning and their learning styles - stretching and growing as critical thinkers.”

These conversations in 8th grade eventually become part of a student’s personal learner map. The learner map documents an annual look at a student’s courses as well as a longer-term look at courses they may want to take throughout high school as they explore what they might want to do later.

“Every grade level is a little different,” says Troy Willemssen, high school counselor for personalized learning.

For 9th and 10th graders, scheduled meetings focus on how the transition to high school has been going and course selection and planning. The 11th grade meetings happen in the fall and focus a little more on preparation for the ACT and graduation requirements. By senior year, graduation and/or credit recovery is top of mind as students plan for life after high school. The student’s annual and long-term learner map is a part of every conversation.

“Ultimately, it comes down to creating a plan - what are we doing next year? Are we taking any AP/honors classes, any college classes?” says Troy. “Then, what are we thinking about after high school? The conversation often turns into something else - a step or two down the path.”

Virtual meeting technology has made parent participation easier. About half of the scheduled meetings include a parent or guardian.

“Parents really get a lot out of it,” says Troy. “They don’t always get all of the information from their student. The meeting gives parents their own little venue and way to check in.”

Balancing today’s needs with future planning

Often, longer-term planning for the future is overshadowed by more immediate concerns. Media coverage about pandemic impacts to mental health and academic deficits is top of mind for many parents and community members this year.

Early this fall, each Spring Lake Park High School counselor sent an introductory letter to the students and families on their rosters. The letters were simple. Counselors shared a little bit about who they are and when and how to get in contact. They didn’t want to leave connections to chance.

Associate Principal Jahnke smiling while interacting with students in the hallway

Megan Jahnke, associate principal at Spring Lake Park High School, interacts and makes connections with students between class periods.

“The intent was to just say ‘hi,’ here I am, and I’m here for you. . . questions, concerns, anything,” says Megan. “Making the connection with families is huge. For our incoming 9th graders, this will be their child's counselor for the next four years. We want to start well – both the year and the high school experience.”

With those early efforts to connect, Megan says counselors are reporting they are the busiest they have ever been. It’s not always with what they expect.

“We’re seeing and hearing more 11th and 12th graders knocking on our doors about 2-year, 4-year and outside plans after high school,” says Megan. “More students are looking for access points to long-range planning for career paths we haven’t explored as in depth. That’s good news.”

Social and emotional needs remain high and access to mental health services is strained across our community. Counselors, partnering with school psychologists and social workers, continue to work with families to connect them to community support as needed. The district also partners with Lee Carlson Center and David Hoy and Associates to provide school-based therapy.

While parents do contact counselors with concerns about student mental health, "parents aren’t always contacting us out of concern,” says Megan. “Sometimes, they want to know - 'Have you seen my student in the hallway? Do they have friends?' It often helps families to know there’s at least one specific person they can reach out to besides their child’s teachers – another caring adult.”

During the proactive, one-to-one meetings, what often emerges for Troy is a sense of teamwork and a team approach.

“Many parents don't know if they are supporting their child as they should be,” says Troy. “It may sound cliché but it really does take a village to raise one child. We need to be all hands on deck and be on the same team. When we have these meetings, we hopefully reduce a little anxiety and a little stress.”

Caleb, Heather, and Troy all acknowledge that each day is a balancing act. Prioritization and teamwork are critical.

“We have to be really good at prioritizing and be great teammates,” says Troy. “We have to pick up for each other. Teamwork is what gets us through.”

Figuring out how to be available for both the day-to-day emotional needs students have and the proactive one-to-one planning isn’t easy and is important.

“We don't want to sacrifice one for the other,” says Caleb. “Our students need both.”

Partnering Through Transition by Caleb Luecke

Supporting our students at critical transition points is extremely important. Hear from middle school counselor Caleb Luecke about the importance of "partnering through transition" to help create confident and comfortable kids who are ready for their next steps.