Someone to Talk to
Author: Suzanne Pardington
Posted: June 6, 2017

School counselors do more than you know

THE NEWS reached counselors at Faubion School that night: A man had fired multiple gunshots into a mobile home park where about 100 students live. Bullets tore through the thin walls after dinnertime as the man shouted racist insults at the mostly Latino residents.

Although no one was hurt, the counselors knew it would be a traumatic experience for children and parents alike and braced for the steady stream of families who would show up at the Northeast Portland school the next day looking for support.

The community turns to the school first because they trust it, which is exactly what the counselors want.

Kelly Oriard MS ’14, Claire LaPoma MS ’15 and Megan Thomer MS ’16, graduates of Portland State’s Counselor Education program, together run a unique mental health program at Faubion that aims to wrap children in a full range of care. It’s part of the school’s plan to become a one-stop shop for academic, health and social services, all offered on-site.

“A lot of families feel they can come to school with whatever big problem and feel they’ll be supported,” says LaPoma. “They know when in doubt, go to the school, because they’ll help you with resources.”

Most of Faubion’s nearly 600 students in preschool to eighth grade live in poverty, nearly half are homeless or living in subsidized housing, and two-thirds are children of color. About 30 percent of students are Latino, many of them from immigrant families. Some children crossed into the U.S. by themselves.

Those numbers add up to a high level of traumatic stress that can affect behavior and performance in school.

That’s why the three counselors use a method called “trauma-informed” care, which seeks to identify triggers and give students coping skills to counteract them. Trauma can include anything from neglect and abuse to community violence, such as the shooting at the neighborhood mobile home park.

BY THE THIRD week of school, the Faubion counseling team had identified more than 140 students with complex trauma that severely impacts their academic and social success.

“It’s not what’s wrong with you, but what happened to you?” LaPoma says. “We like to say that kids have an invisible backpack that they carry around all day, and it’s full of their trauma.”

The skills that students have learned to keep themselves safe outside of school, such as aggression, often don’t work well in school. Some students come to school hungry or with other needs that prevent them from focusing in class. Faubion runs a clothing closet, offers free lunch to all students and sends home bags of donated food with 150 students each Friday.

“It’s our job to figure out if anything like that is going on for the student,” Thomer says. “When they are here we try to wrap them up in love and understanding. It’s not all about academics; we want to know their life stories, so we can put tools and coping skills in place.”

Eighth-grader Marley Honl and her mother, Georgie Honl, felt the difference from the moment they walked in Faubion's front door.

School was often overwhelming for 14-year-old Marley, who was adopted from foster care and struggles with anxiety and other issues related to fetal alcohol exposure. But since she enrolled in Faubion last fall, she has been more relaxed, confident and engaged in her classes, her mom says.

Marley’s previous school was slow to help, and Georgie says she had to constantly advocate for her. But the Faubion counselors are responsive and sensitive to Marley’s needs.

“The well-being of the children and the families is really their goal, and it really shows in their actions and how they handle our needs,” Georgie says. “It’s the vibe of the building.”

LAPOMA, a prevention specialist for Trillium Family Services who is based at Faubion, greets students as they arrive each day. If a student is in crisis, she ushers the child into her office next to the front door, a comforting space with big pillows, stuffed animals, a tent, a sand table, and soft dolls with different expressions to help children describe their feelings.

“There’s a lot of distrust in mental health systems,” she says. “I’m proud of being that first contact, being that trusted person so they open up and access services in the future.”

Oriard and Thomer, who work for Portland Public Schools, lead classroom lessons, talk to students in small groups and individually, and support teachers. They have created safe spaces throughout the school where students can go to calm down or just take a break. And they check in at the beginning and end of each school day with students who need extra support.

They all drop everything for a crisis call. “On any given day, anything could happen, so having a good team is really necessary,” says LaPoma.

Oriard was the first of the three women to work at the school, then pushed to hire more PSU alumni, because they’re ready for this kind of work the day they graduate. Portland State’s three-year, 150-student Counselor Education program includes intense clinical training.

Faubion will expand its health and social services next fall when it moves into a new building and launches the “3 to PhD” initiative with Portland Public Schools, Trillium Family Services and neighboring Concordia University. The new campus will house the Concordia college of education, an at-cost grocery store, a health and dental clinic and an early childhood program. The Concordia students will take classes, tutor and intern at Faubion, and the preschoolers will be able to peek through a window from their room into the college classes.

Thomer likes that the grade school students will have this view. The idea is that all the Faubion children “can and will go to college,” she says.

Suzanne Pardington is a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications.

Captions: Mr. Potato Head helps Faubion School counselor Megan Thomer MS ’16 keep children’s attention as she shares lessons on coping skills. Photo by Kelly James.

Megan Thomer MS ’16 is one of three PSU Counselor Education alumni who make a difference for the students and their families at Faubion Elementary School.