School counselors give hope

Fort Payne High School Guidance Counselors Amanda Varnadore, left, and Cindy Smith, right, appreciate the efforts of social worker Kayla Magbie, center. Together, the three serve as a resource for students facing personal struggles that affect learning. 

School counselors not only advise students about improving their grades and planning their futures. They are also a source of comfort for troubled children facing a long list of stressful concerns like mental health issues, financial difficulties, behavioral problems, parent-child conflict, family crisis, suspected child abuse or neglect, poor academic performance, and truancy or chronic absenteeism.

Fort Payne High School guidance counselors Cindy Smith and Amanda Varnadore have seen a lot of situations over the years. Both started as teachers before moving to the FPHS office. In October 2018, they got some help in the form of social worker Kayla Magbie, who visits children at all four schools in the system.

The women said every child is different, just as every day in the office can present unique challenges from the one before.

“We ask a lot from our students because we know how much potential they have,” Magbie said. “I have to come in to work ready to give my all because I can’t ask a student to give 110 percent effort and then only give 80 percent myself.”

Magbie, a 2006 FPHS graduate, said the support she’s received from Fort Payne Superintendent Jim Cunningham and Special Education and Accountability Coordinator Paula Muskett makes her proud to be a part of the Fort Payne School System.

“I want to go above and beyond for them and the faculty. A lot of [the teachers] were here when I was a student,” she said.

When addressing problems, students or parents may be reluctant to accept tough truths, but Magbie said most caregivers are non-confrontational because they recognize she’s attempting to help their child.

They see the full range of humanity, from moms and dads who may have pampered their children a little too much to parents who hardly engage with their son or daughter. The ideal balance is achieved when the student feels supported but also takes on responsibility to do things for themselves. More students are being raised by grandparents or aunts and uncles. The age gap makes it challenging to relate to one another.

“[Students] walk through these doors with different degrees of support and resources available to them in the home,” Magbie said.

Narrowing that gap leads to more consistent outcomes.

Guidance counselors spend a good portion of their time working with students on state-mandated testing. Most parents do not realize the many hours of instruction that precede such testing, as well as administering make-up tests.

“Testing is time-consuming, but we must be very diligent about it,” Varnadore said.

The guidance counselors start their day like any employees, but an unexpected cry for help can push what’s planned to the backburner because a child’s well-being takes top priority.

Varnadore said it can be a struggle for guidance counselors to leave their work in the office when the school day is done.

“You do sometimes take it home,” she said. “You hope you’ve done everything you could to help a student. But it’s also very rewarding when a child comes to you and you can watch their load lighten because of something you’ve told them. You can see when you’ve brought them hope.”

Magbie said parents should recognize that while their child’s concerns may seem small compared to grownup pressures, for the student, exaggerated worries can generate a lot of stress that distracts from everything else.

“[Students] are ‘zoned in’ concentrating intensely on their friends and how they are perceived by others on social media. On top of that, they’re expected to also do school work. Understanding their mindset is an eye-opener. Parents should take it with a grain of salt if their son or daughter says they are doing fine. Teenagers can be very secretive in terms of putting on a brave face because they feel like everything needs to appear perfect,” Magbie said.

Ironically, students often use social media channels like Snapchat to boast and overshare in a way kids simply didn’t do when Magbie herself was a student. Still, she’s young enough to relate to their world.

“Things that we might have been ashamed of, now are worn as a badge of honor,” she said. The school checks student Chromebooks for risky behavior, but parents also need to routinely monitor what a child does online.

Varnadore worries that children spend too much time connected to screens, rarely unplugging, and this affects their sleep patterns and ability to fully concentrate on learning.

“Technology presents challenges, even in the early grades,” Magbie agreed. “We came back from Christmas break and I asked the children at Williams Avenue what they got for Christmas, and some of them held up Apple watches and smartphones.”

Reaching children early with conversations about ethics and empathy goes a long way toward mitigating problems that may come up later.

“The kids at Wills Valley Elementary, they are so loveable and will just hug one another,” Magbie said. “We want that positive vibe of getting along to carry over as much as possible when they transition to higher grades.”

Tremendous change happens while students attend the system’s largest campus, Fort Payne Middle School. The onset of puberty and other awkward changes force kids to adjust as they work on forming their own unique identities. This can lead to “drama” as they form their first romantic relationships and learn appropriate behavior, sometimes by error. Another tough time is typically the start of the ninth grade at FPHS.

At the higher grades, the guidance counselors see students grappling with depression, self-harm in the form of cutting themselves and, most of all, anxiety.

“One thing we try to help them with is learning coping skills,” Varnadore said. “A lot of students feel that if one thing goes wrong, it’s the end of the world. But that moment does not determine the rest of their lives. We show them that if they can’t change or run away from something that’s causing them stress, they must figure out ways to deal with it and get through the day.”

Sometimes, it’s not a troubled child who raises a red flag but rather, a concerned friend.

“The kids are fiercely loyal to one another,” Magbie said. “They stand up for each other and don’t want to be viewed as ‘snitching’ on their friend. They say, ‘Don’t tell them I told you.’”

These days, establishing enough trust to get students to share concern can be the difference between tragic headlines of violence and situations that get resolved before reaching that point. Magbie said tips about dangers to student safety are immediately investigated and “nothing gets brushed off.”

That, unfortunately, leads to some false threats. For example, the guidance counselors are forced to make a judgment call when a child is rumored to sharing suicidal thoughts. Whether it is a genuine danger overheard or a calculated ploy to get the wrong sort of attention, the matter is addressed with absolute seriousness. The school system partners with agencies like CED Mental Health and the DeKalb County Children’s Advocacy Center to make sure the child gets support.

Educating teens about the risks of behaviors like vaping also comes with the job.

“We have good kids at Fort Payne,” Varnadore said. “We want them to come to us if they need help because if they are absent due to anxiety or an issue in the home, they miss out on the classroom instruction they could be getting.”

Along with a greater tolerance for diversity, today’s FPHS students enjoy many more college and career prep resources, including dedicated pathways to learning skills such as culinary, welding, nursing, and other possible jobs. The guidance counselors help students learn what’s out in the labor market and assist with dual enrollment at Northeast Alabama Community College. They also have an eye on the next big thing in terms of job trends and help graduates position themselves to find jobs out in the world or return to raise their own kids here.

“Every child is different. Not every kid is going to Auburn. There are technical programs available. College is important, and there are other avenues they can explore as well,” Varnadore said.

The trio “make a good team” as Varnadore puts it. She calls Magbie “priceless” in giving her and Smith an extra hand and expertise in social work.

Her presence makes it possible to take on more and do a better job helping students. Asked if she would recommend other school systems commit resources to adding someone like Magbie, she answered “definitely.”

In October 2019, Magbie joined Superintendent Cunningham and State Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, in Montgomery to discuss mental health issues before a state ad hoc committee. Ledbetter’s communications director Jade Wagner said lawmakers are building a consensus to follow Fort Payne’s example.

Magbie said her colleagues genuinely care for the students and are quick to spring into action to respond, shifting gears quickly, metaphorically speaking.

While no campus will ever be 100 percent free from distraction, the guidance counselors at Fort Payne use empathy and experience to help the community’s young people grow up wiser and better equipped to take on the world.

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