When budget cuts crippled Montgomery Middle School’s counseling program — leaving one counselor to help over 400 students — graduate counseling student Leslie Kehl received an offer to lead a revival of the struggling department.
For a decade before she ever joined USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences (SOLES) counseling program, Kehl was the director of YMCA’s PRYDE program, helping at-risk youths and their families’ triumph over gang conflict, domestic abuse, and drug and alcohol addiction. It was a clear instance of preparation meeting opportunity, the formula for success.
“I was a community partner when the principal asked us to help provide more counseling support to the students at Montgomery and I happened to be applying to USD for SOLES’ counseling program,” she said. “So I already kind of had a relationship with USD and with Montgomery.”
The relationship has been beneficial for all involved. Kehl’s work, leadership and problem-solving skills, specifically, were recently recognized when she was named the 2013 Graduate Student Woman of Impact Award winner by the USD Women’s Center.
“She has done an incredible job making the counseling program truly meaningful for the school and, most importantly, the middle school children,” said an anonymous nominator in support of Kehl’s impactful work.
Kehl’s solution, done alongside the support of a team she assembled, has been a culture-changing process.
She started by studying the structure of the program, analyzing data about the frequency and cause of student visits to the counseling office. It wasn’t long before she discovered that Montgomery’s lone counselor wasn’t being properly utilized.
“The counseling program initially was more of a disciplinary office,” Kehl said. “Students were sent to the counseling office for misbehaving in some way or another, but counseling is not really the appropriate place [for that] because if you’re trying to build a counseling relationship with students, you can’t also be the one who’s giving them detention.”
Though the problem was large, Kehl focused on a simple, direct solution. She worked with the teachers and school leaders to re-shape their reasons for sending students to the counseling office. Minor disciplinary problems, such as chewing gum or acting out, were handled in the classroom, freeing the counselors to address larger behavioral problems and devote more time to the students that needed them.
The number of referrals decreased steadily to a manageable amount. Currently, the six counselors — Montgomery counselor Julie Sandubrae and five USD interns, including Kehl — see roughly 25 individual students a week, and even added three, 10-student group sessions. The students most in need of counseling services receive it, while others look at counselors as a positive force rather than simply another disciplinary one.
“I think students in general are a lot happier about being a part of the counseling process,” Kehl explained. “Whereas, previously, the office was looked at as where you get in trouble as opposed to an office where somebody is going to help you or support you.”
Kehl may have won the Woman of Impact Award, but she cites her fellow interns — Ava Abidi, Amanda Artru, Lauren Heimburger and Husani Whitlock — and her classes in the SOLES counseling program as fundamental to her success.
“A lot of our group work comes from worksheets we used in class. The biggest thing is they’re very supportive and almost insistent on the fact that the counseling relationship should really lack a huge role in disciplining the children.”
While she could have simply added herself and the USD interns to the middle school’s pool of available counselors, Kehl knew that real improvement needed to go deeper. Her mission was to change how the students interacted with counselors, and by accomplishing this task it figures to benefit future Montgomery students.
“I think overall it’s been very beneficial to reshape the role of what a counselor is doing in the school,” she said. “I’m really hopeful … that we can continue to improve the relationships between both the counseling department and the teachers, and help improve student-teacher relationships overall.”
— Moses Utomi ’11