A HELPING HAND AT COLUMBIA HIGH SCHOOL by Cassandra Ratkevich
The debut of CHS’s new resource center, the Counseling Annex.
In September 2021, Columbia High School students returned to the school building to receive full-day, in-person instruction after almost a year and a half of online learning.
With the pandemic still in full swing, however, returning to both the regular school day and extracurricular activities was difficult for many. During the first months back at school, students and parents alike were flooded with emails about where and how to get a COVID test, quarantine protocols, and adjusted sports and academic schedules, amongst other things.
For many students, transitioning back to the classroom was made more overwhelming by mental health struggles relating to the pandemic. Most students had spent the last year and a half isolated – taking classes from a bedroom, makeshift office, or at a kitchen table.
Fortunately, CHS had opened a new resource center to help students navigate their new realities.
The CHS Counseling Annex is the brainchild of CHS guidance director Falynn Balassone, Minority Achievement Club (MAC) director Marcia Hicks, and CHS social work supervisor Jennifer Easton. Located in the rear of the school library, it offers academic and social/emotional resources to support students.
Before becoming the MAC and Counseling Annex director, Hicks was a guidance counselor at CHS from 2002 to 2016. “I’ve kind of always had this in my mind,” she explains. She envisioned someplace in the school with programming that “each year changed and met the needs of the students.” The Counseling Annex serves to do just that.
The Counseling Annex held its grand opening – or “ribbon-cutting type ceremony,” as Balassone explains – on September 27, 2021, in the CHS Library during students’ lunch periods. All students and staff were invited to join and to learn more about the support that would be offered through the Annex.
Placing the Annex within the CHS library helps to establish its identity as the hub for the resource center. Balassone says that, during the school year, a CHS social work intern will be stationed at the desk to the right of the Counseling Annex’s main bulletin board sign, “almost like a receptionist,” to both greet and help guide students.
Balassone also explains how students will be able to approach the Counseling Annex’s location in the library without a clear-cut idea of the support they need or are looking for. “The intern will be like, ‘all right, let’s look at all the options we offer,’” and talk through the multiple services and support systems available to the student.
These services include, but are not limited to, student-athlete support groups, new-student groups, and anxiety support groups. This past school year, the groups, which students could sign up for, ran for 12 weeks at a time, with weekly meetings being hosted for each group during both the fall and spring terms.
Apart from group sessions, the Annex has also hosted workshops throughout the year that did not require sign-ups. College application workshops ran from September to December. According to Balassone, seniors could “pop in whenever they wanted for help.”
Another workshop, the Executive Functioning Skills Workshop for Students, met every Thursday during students’ ninth period and after school throughout the school year. The workshop helped to teach students skills such as time management, routine development, and the importance of using a planner.
A guiding principle of the Counseling Annex is its emphasis on working with a group. As Hicks explains, group support means that a student does not “have to listen to just one person in a silo in [an] office,” which may happen if students go to speak with their guidance counselor.
“It’s a little bit more of a community than just kind of feeling like you’re an individual going because you’re having an individual problem,” Hicks says.
Balassone explains that at the Counseling Annex, she recognizes that not every student seeking support has the same comfort level. Some students may not be willing to go to the physical location of the Annex itself, or they may feel uncomfortable working through issues with a group of their peers. Balassone and her colleagues Hicks and Easton want to make the Annex “accessible from any angle.”
“The real kicker that we tried to make really easy is that you can request any type of support that the Annex gives right on this little Google form,” Balassone says.
The form is located on the CHS Counseling website under the Counseling Annex Supports subpage. If a student does not have time to go to the library, if parents want to seek help for their child, or even “if [a student’s] neighbor thought [that they] looked sad on [their] front step the other day, they could go on here and say they are requesting that someone check in with this student,” says Balassone.
Once the form is filled out by, or for, a student, a social work intern will then ask to speak with the student briefly during class and work with the student to see when they would be able to schedule a meeting with someone at the Counseling Annex, if desired, or let them know more details about workshops that they may be interested in attending.
The form also provides a link to the Annex’s full calendar, which includes the daily agendas for different support groups and the dates of upcoming workshops.
The Annex extends itself into the larger CHS community by providing parent workshops and informational evening programs. Parent Academy, a Counseling Annex and Parenting Center partnership, consists of monthly virtual-teachable Tuesdays for parents and guardians. Last December, for example, the Annex worked with Community Care & Justice of South Orange to present a program called “Navigating the Winter Blues,” focusing on seasonal affective disorder.
And with the new school year rapidly approaching, new plans for the Annex have started.
“I have ideas for groups, but struggle with naming [them],” Hicks jokes.
One solidified idea Hicks has for the upcoming school year is a tour group – “Tourtastic” – to help the new students at CHS, including the freshman class. Hicks explains that the group will consist of current students giving tours to new students throughout the school year. The student will not only be a tour guide but also a friend to those they meet, exchanging numbers with the new students and becoming a mentor for their “tour group” for the next eight weeks.
“You’ll have a connection throughout at least the first semester with somebody you can talk to,” Hicks says about new students who choose to take part in the program.
While the Counseling Annex seeks to address mental health struggles and general student welfare, Balassone emphasizes that the Annex is not only for counseling. The Annex can also be a resource for students’ everyday needs, such as tutoring. As September draws near, Balassone hopes that the Annex becomes more of an integral part of CHS students’ experience. Says she, “I want to get the word out more.”
Cassandra Ratkevich graduated from CHS in June of 2022 and is attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in the fall.