Evaluating the Services of a Rural Elementary Counseling Program

Elizabeth R. Taylor, Ph.D.
Texas Christian University, TCU Box 297900, Fort Worth, TX 76129
e.taylor@tcu.edu; 817-257-6768; 817-257-7480 (fax)

Patricia Henderson, Ed.D.
Northside Independent School District, San Antonio, TX

Dr. Elizabeth R. Taylor is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Counseling Program in the School of Education at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.

Dr. Patricia Henderson is Director of the Guidance and Counseling Program for the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas.

Abstract

An evaluation was conducted of the elementary guidance and counseling services in a small rural school district. The evaluation focus was on the comparison of the current elementary guidance and counseling program with the developmental guidance model recommended by Gysbers and Henderson and the Texas Education Agency. The evaluation process, results, and recommendations for future program evaluations are presented.

Evaluating the Services of a Rural Counseling Program

School counseling has been an evolutionary process since the early 1900s. Organizational patterns have historically had a counselor focus rather than a program focus where the emphasis was on the position of the counselor rather than the guidance program; therefore, the activities provided by the guidance counselor were considered to be ancillary to the functioning of the school and were reinforced by the clerical type activities performed by many counselors. This resulted in counselors being assigned various non-counseling duties, since they had no clear focus, had a flexible schedule, and were already involved in other ancillary tasks (Gysbers & Henderson, 1997). In Texas, change began when the Texas Education Agency (TEA) (1998) adopted the Gysbers and Henderson model (2001) as its standard for school counseling programs. Program components of this model include the guidance curriculum (classroom and group activities), individual planning (individual appraisal, advisement, and placement), responsive services (consultation, personal counseling, crisis counseling, and referral), and system support (research and development, public relations, professional development, committees and advisory boards, community outreach, and program management) (Gysbers & Henderson, 1997).

According to Gysbers and Henderson (1997) and the TEA (1998) the following components are deemed necessary for effective and comprehensive school guidance and counseling programs:

  1. Planned and designed program based on needs, assessment, priorities, and prevention;
  2. Program design including counselor support and a strong professional identity;
  3. Staff and the community education about their roles and responsibilities;
  4. Comprehensive, designed program in which all stakeholders are involved;
  5. Age-appropriate, developmental guidance curriculum that addresses student needs in the areas of self-confidence, motivation, decision-making and goal-setting, interpersonaleffectiveness, communication skills, cross-cultural effectiveness, and responsible behavior;
  6. Group guidance and counseling focusing on clearly identified student needs based on formal and informal needs assessments;
  7. Assistance in helping students reach identified goals;
  8. Service to all students and meeting the diversity of all individual needs.

Finally, the comprehensive guidance program includes ongoing evaluation in which the mission, goals, and objectives are evaluated yearly and updated or modified based on needs and evaluation.

The following describes an evaluation of an elementary guidance and counseling program in a small rural school district where the district was only beginning to make changes from an ancillary services-oriented focus to a developmental guidance program. Discussed are: (a) the process and outcome of the evaluation of a rural elementary school counseling program, (b) how the current rural counseling program compares to the developmental guidance and counseling program model set forth by Gysbers and Henderson, and (c) lessons learned in the evaluation process, specifically as they pertain to guidance and counseling programs in rural communities.

Method

Participants

The current evaluation took place in a small town of approximately 25,000 citizens, primarily White (98.6%) with an average household income of approximately $50,000. The school district had a total of 9 schools--1 high school, 1 middle school (7th and 8th grades), 1 intermediate school (5th and 6th grades), 1 alternative school, and 5 elementary schools. Participants invited to participate in the evaluation included 5 counselors, 175 teachers, 5 school administrators, and 100 students and their parents from each of the five elementary school campuses.

Instruments

Surveys. Students, teachers, parents, counselors and administrators were surveyed. The purpose of the surveys was to measure the participants' perceptions of and satisfaction with counseling services. All surveys were based on those provided by Rye and Sparks (1998) and Fairchild (1994) and were modified by the investigators after consulting with the district's school counselors.

The Elementary Student Survey was a 19-question, yes-no-not sure response item scale addressing counselor availability, relationships skills, and guidance activities. Examples of the questions or statements presented included: "Do you know who your counselor is?" "The counselor understands how I feel." "I learned how to get along with others." The parent survey was an 8-question, yes-no-don’t know-not applicable scale examining availability, accessibility, and information dissemination. Parents responded to statements such as, "I know who the counselor is at my child's school," and "Counselors are willing to give parents useful information in dealing with their children." Two open-ended questions were also asked--"What are the strengths of the counseling program in your school?" and "What are some suggestions for improving the counseling program in your school?" These questions were repeated on the teacher, administrator, and counselor surveys.

The teacher survey was a 13-question, 5-point Likert scale with two open-ended questions. The questions assessed the teachers' perceptions of the counselors' effectiveness with students and teachers. Examples of the statements presented included: "The counselor views my concerns as important," or "The counselor is readily available for consultation."

The administrator survey was a 20-question, 5-point Likert scale assessing the counselor’s effectiveness with teachers, students, parents, and administrators. Examples of questions regarding effectiveness included, "The counselor cooperates with administration regarding development of the counseling program," and "The counselor understands parental concerns."

The counselor survey was a 13-question, 5-point Likert scale with two open-ended questions, in which counselors assessed their own effectiveness in working with students, teachers, parents, and administrators. Examples of statements asked of counselors included: "I am visible to the students in my schools," and "I provide helpful ideas and suggestions."

Interviews. Counselors were also interviewed in a one-to-one semi-structured interview to assess their perceptions about the strengths and needs of the program, the roles they played in their respective schools, and what they hoped the evaluation would accomplish. Reciprocal feedback with counselors and administrators was ongoing throughout the evaluation.

Logs. To quantify the design, the investigator examined how much time was spent on each of the program components. Counselors kept a four-week log, two weeks in the fall and two weeks in the spring. Logs were divided into the four categories as described by Gysbers and Henderson (1997)--Group Guidance, Responsive Services, Individual Planning, and System Support.

Procedure

Students and Parent Surveys. Parents and students were matched, so that students and their parents each received a survey. The surveys were sent to parents with a letter explaining confidentiality, purposes, and procedures. The letter asked parents to complete the surveys and help their children complete their surveys. Although this approach may have created some bias, it may have also provided the parents with information about the counselor by discussing the questions with the child.

In order to begin the sampling of each school, the evaluator determined to sample 100 students and their parents from each of grades 1 through 5. Ten classrooms were selected from each school through cluster sampling. Twenty students from each grade level were then randomly selected from the sample classrooms to receive the parent and student surveys. In total, 1000 students and parents from the first through fifth grades received surveys.

Teacher, Administrator, and Counselor Surveys. The 150 teachers in the 5 elementary schools were given surveys to complete anonymously indicating their views and satisfaction with the counseling program in their respective schools. These were placed in their school mailboxes and returned to the school secretary. Five administrators and five counselors from each of the five schools were provided surveys accompanied by an addressed envelope, so surveys could be returned anonymously to the investigator.

Throughout the evaluation process, the investigator met with the counselors to provide them with findings to date and to obtain their feedback about data validity and reliability. The investigator also met with the director of the counseling program, who also served as the assistant superintendent, during the process to keep her informed of process and procedures. It is important to note that the director of counseling administrates several programs in the district, is not oriented in the counseling profession, and does not evaluate the counselors. The final report was provided to elementary campus administrators, the administrative director of the program, and the superintendent of schools. A slide presentation was delivered at one of the weekly meetings of central administration and campus administrators.

Results

Results are outlined according to the different sources of information and are inclusive of parents, students, administrators, teachers, or counselors. This is followed by an overall comparison of how the current program compares to the TEA developmental guidance model.

Parents. Of the 500 parents of elementary students who received the survey, 315 (63%) were returned. Approximately half (53%) of the 315 parents who completed the surveys knew who the counselor was at their school; however, the majority (64%) of them knew how to go about seeing the counselor if their child had a problem, and 288 (70%) believed the counselor to be a valuable resource in the school. A little more than half (58%) believed group guidance and counseling activities had helped their child. Half (50%) of the parents wished to see the counselor continue to work in their child’s school. Regarding suggestions for improvement of the counseling program, parents stated they would like more communication with the counselor in terms of follow-up about a child’s problem, newsletters or flyers about good parenting practices, and a description of counseling services. Some stated that more counseling services were needed, specifically, group guidance, small group counseling, and individual counseling. A third theme stated by parents was the need to relieve counselors of testing and paperwork, and provide counselors with assistance.

Students. Since the student and parent surveys were to be completed in tandem, return rates of the surveys closely mirrored those of parent surveys, in that 314 (63%) of elementary student surveys were returned. Of these, 83.4% stated they knew who the counselor was, and 70.6% stated they knew what the counselor did. More than half (57.6%) stated they enjoyed talking with the counselor, and 63.9% stated that the counselor helps them with their problems. Students (80.3%) stated that they enjoyed the classroom activities the counselor provided; that they [the students] were responsible for their behavior (87.5%), and that they had learned to get along with others (84.6%).

Teachers. Of the 175 teachers who were given the survey, 88 (48%) were completed and returned. Teachers stated that they believed the counselor most of the time or always was effective with students and teachers and rated them in this fashion on all items of the teacher scale. Few (less than 10%) rated the counselors on the lower end. Teacher surveys revealed overwhelming support and approval for the counselor role and the services provided. Teachers discussed the ability of counselors to work with student problems, to provide services that are out of the teacher’s domain, to act as a resource about student problems and behaviors, and counselors' ability to enhance the learning environment. The majority of teachers described their counselors as “available,” “knowledgeable,” “helpful,” “great,” “positive,” and “caring."

The main concern teachers reflected was the lack of direct services to students due to counselor responsibilities, such as paperwork, testing, scheduling, and meetings. Teachers stated that counselors: (a) spent the majority of their time on non-counseling activities; (b) needed to have more time to actually spend with children; (c) should have more time for small group and individual sessions; and (d) should conduct more guidance lessons.

Principals. Five (100%) of the principal surveys representing all five schools were returned. The majority of the principals at all educational levels stated that the counselor was effective with students, teachers, administration, and parents most or all of the time on all items of the scale. Only two negative comments about a counselor were noted. Most considered their counselors to be valuable assets to the functioning of the school. Closer examination of this information reflected the principals’ general attitudes toward the counseling role, in that they felt counselors should spend more time working with student problems, less time conducting testing activities, and more time conducting group guidance.

Counselors

Interviews. Counselors completed a one-on-one semi-structured interview, a self-evaluation, and two 2-week time charts in the fall and spring. When asked what they would like the evaluation to do, counselors stated that they would like the evaluation to provide administrators and school staff with knowledge about counseling as it exists and as it should exist; and secondly, to move the counseling services into a developmental guidance and counseling program with strong leadership and a sense of identity.

When counselors were asked about what roles they assumed, all named their roles of special programs' coordinator, testing coordinator, and coordinator for Red Ribbon week. Other common themes consisted of acting as consultant for teachers and parents and as a crisis intervention specialist. Counselors reported having no guidance curriculum. In order to determine what topics to cover during guidance lessons, counselors used several different approaches. For example, some counselors developed guidance lessons based on problems that they saw re-occurring among students. Others used the character education program adopted by the district. Some conducted informal assessments, in which the teachers selected pertinent topics.

Time Charts. Time charts were arranged according to the different components suggested by the Gysbers and Henderson model (1997), namely "group guidance," "responsive services," "individual planning," and "system support." Averages for the year were significantly different from the TEA (1998) recommendations. Logs indicated "group guidance" (14% vs. TEA recommendation of 37.5%) and "responsive services" (14% vs. TEA recommendation of 35%) were significantly lower than TEA recommendations, whereas "individual planning" (35% versus TEA recommendation of 20%) and "system support" (37% versus TEA recommendation 12.5%) were significantly higher than TEA recommendations.

When asked what they would like to spend more time doing, most stated that they would like to: (a) be able to provide more direct services to students through individual and group counseling and classroom guidance; (b) do less paperwork; (c) have more time to plan activities and special programs; and (d) provide more preventative programs versus crisis interventions. When asked about suggestions they have for improving the counseling program, the following items were named most frequently: (a) leadership and advocacy for counselors; (b) better communication with parents, teachers, and administrators; (c) fewer paper work responsibilities; (d) secretarial support; (e) time to meet with other counselors in the district for ideas and support; (f) staff development days devoted specifically to counseling; (g) less testing; and (h) use of a scope and sequenced curriculum.

Counselors felt strongly, at all levels, that more time should be spent in direct service to students rather than doing paper work and conducting meetings. They agreed that they could fill a strong role in providing leadership in the areas of character education and emotional development.

Comparison with TEA's Developmental Guidance and Counseling Model

The evaluation of this rural district revealed that many of the elements recommended by TEA and the Gysbers and Henderson model were not in place (see Table 1). Counselors in the study district did not have a planned and designed program, one that provided counselor support and a strong professional identity, staff and community education, an age-appropriate, developmental guidance curriculum to address student needs, and one that helps students reach identified goals. However, counselors did meet with students individually and in small groups and provided group guidance activities based on informal needs assessments. These activities were not conducted on a regular basis but as time allowed. Time logs completed over two 2-week periods revealed that elementary counselors spent much of their time in the individual planning and system support components versus group guidance and responsive services.

Conclusions

Information from surveys administered to parents, students, administrators, and teachers indicated that the majority of those surveyed believed that counseling services were beneficial to students and were an important component of the education process. The majority of students and a little more than half of the parents knew who the counselor was at the students' respective schools. Concerns centered around the sacrificing of individual and group guidance and counseling activities for clerical work, testing, meetings, and administrative duties.

The evaluation revealed several reasons for the district not employing a developmental guidance and counseling model. First, many of the schools did not have assistant principals; therefore, when the principals left campus or addressed teacher, parent, or student concerns, counselors were naturally called upon to assist in administration since they have qualities that are often important to administrators, such as the ability to handle matters confidentially, to organize information and complete documents correctly, and effectively deal with parents, teachers, and students. Another reason that the schools did not have a developmental counseling and guidance program was the lack of understanding about such a model and its implications for practice at the campus and district administrative levels, a common problem where the size of the district and funds available are limited (Gysbers and Henderson, 1997).

Recommendations

Several important considerations should be kept in mind when conducting an evaluation of a guidance and counseling program, particularly one in a small rural district. These considerations include:

  1. Gaining the support of the local school board to lead and enable the district administrators to treat the counseling program as an important component of the district's educational system.
  2. Keeping in mind when submitting recommendations that monies are often not as plentiful in small districts. If recommendations far exceed the resources available, the entire evaluation may not be accepted.
  3. Keeping stakeholders informed of findings over the course of the evaluation process. This can be done face-to-face or through the submission of reports; however, this can be difficult, since there are fewer administrators in a rural district, and their time is at a premium.
  4. Gaining the support of administration early in the process. One of the most important elements that allowed this evaluation to occur was a joint meeting that occurred with building administrators and the assistant superintendent. During this meeting, the assistant superintendent introduced the evaluator and explained her purpose. This opened the door on each campus for the evaluation process.
  5. Enlisting the support of the counselors and meet with them often. When face-to-face meetings cannot occur, use electronic mail or other methods to stay in contact.
  6. Taking advantage of the use of the Internet throughout the evaluation process. Electronic mail provides an important connection between the evaluator and administrators, counselors, and teachers. It also saves time in arranging meetings and disseminating information. Another aspect of the use of electronic mail is the ability of counselors to follow-up with information that they may have forgotten to supply. Also, surveys and open-ended questions are more likely to be completed if submitted through the Internet.

Finally, it is important that the evaluation process continue so that counselors and district personnel can be reminded of the developmental guidance and counseling model and can have information necessary for financial and personnel decisions. If evaluation activities do not continue, the evaluation recommendations may not receive the necessary weight of importance to be fully implemented.

References

Fairchild, T. N. (1994). Evaluation of counseling services: Accountability in a rural elementary school. Elementary School Guidance and Counseling, 29, 28-36.

Gysbers, N., & Henderson, P. (1997). Comprehensive guidance programs that work--II. Greensboro, NC: University of North Carolina at Greensboro, ERIC/CASS Publications.

Gysbers, N., & Henderson, P. (2001). Comprehensive guidance and counseling programs: A rich history and a bright future. Professional School Counseling, 4, 246-256.

Rye, D. R., & Sparks, R. (1998). Strengthening K-12 school counseling programs: A support systems approach (2nd ed.). New York: Taylor and Francis.

Texas Education Agency (1998). A guide for program development pre-K-12th grade (3rd Ed.). Texas Education Agency: Publications Distribution Center.

Table 1

Comparison of Rural Counseling Program with Gysbers' and Henderson's Developmental Guidance Model

Rural Counseling Program Gysbers and Henderson Developmental Guidance Model
A formal program does not exist. Counseling services provided are ancillary to other programs. Planned and designed program are based on needs, assessment, priorities, and prevention.
Counselors feel a lack of identity with other counselors and rarely see one another. They have informal, but clear, reliance on one experienced counselor. Program design includes counselor support and a strong professional identity.
Although much of the community realizes school counselors exist, most do not feel they receive enough information about program services. Staff and the community are educated about counselor roles and responsibilities.
The program lacks a mission, goals, and curriculum, as well as involvement from stakeholders. Programs are well-designed and comprehensive and include all stakeholders.
A formal curriculum does not exist. An age-appropriate, developmental guidance curriculum is in place addressing student needs in the areas of self-confidence, motivation, decision-making and goal-setting, interpersonal effectiveness, communication skills, cross-cultural effectiveness, and responsible behavior.
Guidance and counseling do focus on student needs identified by informal needs assessments. Group guidance and counseling focus on clearly identified student needs based on formal and informal needs assessments.
This varies from school to school depending on how much time the counselor has to work with children. Help students reach identified goals.
The program does not meet all student needs but is most often dictated by administration needs. The program serves all students and meets the diversity of all individual needs.