November 3, 2021

Counseling in Princeton Schools Encounters New Stresses, Challenges, Opportunities

By Donald Gilpin

Dana Karas

It’s not your grandfather’s guidance department any more at Princeton Public Schools (PPS). The pandemic has further accelerated a transformation that has been underway for some time, with “student counseling” having replaced “guidance”; a new set of responsibilities and priorities in serving the school community; and a renewed focus on wellness and advocating for students, their families, and the community.

“Most people think that school counselors do your schedule, and that’s it,” said PPS Director of Student Counseling Services Dana Karas, who just completed her first month on the job. “I don’t believe that most people know what school counselors do, how counseling supports are there for all students, the depth and breadth of what we can provide the school community.”

She continued, “You go to a math teacher to learn math, but school counselors are here for the whole child, and that’s really important for people in the larger community to recognize. We’re here for every single student in the district.”

Karas, who worked at Franklin Township Public Schools for more than eight years as director of school counseling, and in Lawrence Township Public Schools for more than seven years as supervisor of guidance and classic and world languages, emphasized her focus on advocacy.

“I always feel that my job, my calling, is to be an advocate — for my students, for their families, for the community,” she said. “And I really want the larger community to realize who we are as a profession, as their advocate, to know that they can come to us with questions, that we will do our best to support them in the school environment, and also that we have a wealth of knowledge and resources about the larger community to provide outreach and referrals if needed.”

Karas discussed some of the challenges that the district’s counselors — eight at Princeton High School (PHS), three at Princeton Middle School (PMS), and one at each of the elementary schools — have been contending with in the age of COVID-19.

“In the past at the beginning of the school year we would deal primarily with academics, seeing if kids were in the right courses, making sure kids were where they needed to be. Now we have a number of kids coming in with trauma. There have been adverse impacts in their lives, and it’s manifested in a very different manner with students at different levels. Our ability to recognize those signs and symptoms is important so we can find the best way to support that child emotionally and academically and reach out and support families as well.”

Karas mentioned that ACE (adverse childhood experiences) has become a buzzword in education, especially in school counseling, and it can include anything from food insecurities to having lost loved ones to family members who are ill or have lost jobs.

“Even in Princeton we have families that are in need,” she noted. “In the field of counseling we have recognized that we have kids where school for them is their safe place. They come every day to be fed meals and be taken care of.”

The counselors respond to that trauma in many different ways. “We try to get kids to that place where they can effectively communicate what they’re feeling, what’s going on in their lives, so we can make sure they know how to find the resources that they need,” said Karas.

Many kids have bounced back from the pandemic year and haven’t missed a step, she added, but for others the transition to acclimate back to in-person school has been much more difficult.

“We are committed to the idea of really trying to destigmatize mental health issues,”  said Karas. “To emphasize wellness, to get things in place to help kids learn to de-stress, to manage their emotions, to find balance in life.”

The PPS Counseling Department will be putting forth efforts in the coming months to support those initiatives throughout the district with professional development for counselors and support staff, and a range of different activities and community-building events in the schools, including a “de-stress fest,” mental health fairs, and downtime for camaraderie and being together.

Teachers, administrators, and staff have also been feeling the stress. “It’s been hard for some of our adults too after a year of all-Zoom meetings,” Karas said.  “We need to support our teachers too. It’s not just the kids.”

With a new superintendent, new principals, and other new administrators in the district this year, Karas cited a particular emphasis on “how important school climate and culture is to the well-being of all of us, and this has been having a very positive impact on everyone.”

Karas described starting a recent meeting of school counselors with three minutes of mindful meditation. “We all needed three minutes to breathe,” she said. “It felt so good. We really need to do this every morning. It’s all about self-care. We have to continually remind our staff and our students that it’s OK to breathe, OK to just take a moment for yourself, because there’s a lot going on.”

Having just met the November 1 deadline for early action and early decision applications to colleges, many students and counselors at PHS, where 70 to 80 percent of seniors apply early, were taking a deep breath this week.

“Starting a new school year with new classes, new friends, new teachers, and on top of that they’re applying to colleges, writing their application essays, and still doing all their clubs and sports — it definitely adds a new level of anxiety to a young person’s life,” said Karas. “I heard a kid say today, ‘I submitted all my applications. I can finally breathe.’ That’s what it really does feel like. They’ve gotten over that first hurdle. They can finally take a breath after two months of school.”

Karas, who started her career in education as a French teacher at John Witherspoon Middle School (now PMS) before moving into the field of school counseling at several different schools, was the New Jersey School Counselor of the Year in 2017 and has served as executive board member and president of the New Jersey School Counselor Association. She is currently completing her doctorate in leadership from Kean University.