A new counseling program is aimed at helping some Longview ISD campuses be proactive in helping students’ mental health.

East Texas Advanced Academies is bringing the Character Counts counseling program to all its schools by the start of classes in the fall.

ETAA is the nonprofit organization that operates East Texas Montessori Prep Academy, Ware East Texas Montessori Academy, Johnston-McQueen Elementary School, Bramlette STEAM Academy, J.L. Everhart Elementary School and Forest Park Middle School as charter campuses for Longview ISD.

Deputy of Business Operations Donald Stewart said a goal of ETAA is not just academic learning, but social and emotional improvement, as well. That desire led to ETAA officials finding a counseling program that is proactive versus reactive.

“Our goal was to not be the reactionary process, but to be in front of it, to be able to provide a layer of service to students prior to it becoming a real issue to the kiddos,” he said. “It doesn’t just address the needs of the students. We’re looking at addressing the needs of the staff as well, along with the families and parents.”

Character Counts uses six pillars to help create a positive, safe school environment for students, according to its website — trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.

The program provides training and materials for schools to help students, families and staff, Stewart said.

Counselors have the tools to pull students aside for group therapy or work with them one-on-one to address issues before they become a problem in the classroom, he said.

The counseling program will be fully implemented in kindergarten through eighth grade next school year, Stewart said, and also will be available to staff.

“We want to provide that very similar service for our staff,” he said. “Because they’re people and they too experience the ups and downs of being a person. It’s tough to maintain bills and to stay employed and keep relationships with family members and friends because all of those require you to make effort. What we want to do is be able to provide that to them.”

Stewart said, in the past, a student would come to a teacher or office staff member to convey a concern when it already was a crisis. This program will work to change that so students might not get to that point, he said.

“The expectation is that the counselor will be able to identify the issues on their campus and then get the professional development they need with the models to address that,” Stewart said. “That requires a lot more work on the end of the counselor. Counselors have always been good at listening to kids and assisting where they’re at, but we need the system to assist, and that’s where the benefits of Character Counts come in.”

One example is if a student is dealing with parents getting a divorce. Stewart said a teacher or staff member can notice if a child is sad and intervene before it affects him or her too much in class. Once a counselor reaches out and knows the situation at home, steps can be taken, such as confidence boosting, instead of waiting for the student to be unsuccessful and addressing it then.

Longview ISD’s largest demographic is students of color, and many in the district are at or below the poverty line. Stewart said there are ways the counseling program will benefit them.

“The crises that kids deal with are not exclusive to their race or religion. I think the difference, though, is kids who are not in poverty tend to have more access to external services even if their parents aren’t aware to some of the issues they have,” he said. “Oftentimes, because they more frequently see their doctor for yearly checkups, they more frequently interact witch coaches and other adults, they’re more quickly able to identify if their child is having an issue and then provide those services.

“Because there are a disproportionate number of students of color who are experiencing poverty, they oftentimes lack that access, and many times that access they do get isn’t services outside of school,” Stewart said. “So what we have to do as a school is try to find a way to bridge that gap and identify for those kids.”

A school cannot replace a licensed therapist or other mental health professional, Stewart said, but it can provide some needed services to students.

Moving forward, he said ETAA will use the new counseling program to help each student be successful.

“It’s going to focus more on identifying the issues and then addressing those issues with each individual kid to help them be successful,” Stewart said. “I’ve been part of it before, and it profoundly changes the culture and climate of the school.”

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Kristen is the News-Journal's education reporter. A Longview native, she got a journalism degree and a graduate certificate at Texas Tech University. She covers a variety of issues, including school finance, board meetings and happenings at local schools.