School adds two counselors to staff

This article submitted by Linda Stelling on 12/13/00.

In seeking a way to help students, the Paynesville Area School District has formed a partnership with the Stearns County Family Collaborative to provide services to students.

Paynesville has been with the collaborative since its start six years ago. Programs are funded through state and federal grant dollars. Next year the collaborative expects to receive $750,000 from the federal government.

The Stearns County Family Collaborative includes social service agencies, public health agencies, Head Start, and nine school districts.

"We are all working together to provide services to families in the county," said Mary Oleson, collaborative director. The goal of the collaborative is to provide prevention services and early intervention programs.

The first counselor to work at Paynesville is Kevin O'Neil, a mental health counselor. He meets with students at the elementary school. Students having problems are referred to O'Neil by teachers.

This year, two additional counselors from the collaborative will be working in the Paynesville Area Public Schools.

Services were offered to Paynesville after a series of meetings that identified some needs in Paynesville schools. Chemical health and school attendance were two areas of concern.

Chemical health consultant
Mary Zwack Since the start of the school year, Mary Zwack, a chemical health consultant, has been available to work with students one day a week at the high school. She meets with students who have drinking violations.

Zwack works three days a week in the Kimball School District and one day a week in Paynesville.

A graduate of St. Cloud State University, Zwack has a master's degree in counseling and is licensed as an alcohol and drug counselor. She has been a drug and alcohol counselor for three years.

Zwack leads an insight group and meets one-on-one with students. Most of the students she works with are first-time offenders identified by the school or the court system. Most have appeared before a probation officer and are referred to Zwack.

She also leads education and support groups for people with chemical dependency or alcohol issues.

"I look at the whole picture," Zwack said. As a mother of teenagers herself, she is familiar with the peer pressure students are dealing with and helps them identify issues and enables them to feel good about themselves.

"I like working with people, helping them to help themselves," she said.

As part of her job, Zwack has to assess whether a student has a problem that needs further professional treatment.

Some of the factors that place teens at risk for drug use, according to Zwack, are: family history of alcoholism, poor school attendance, lack of motivation to do school work; family structure and management problems; alienated or antisocial behavior; and long periods of unsupervised time.

According to Zwack, some of the reasons teens use drugs and alcohol are: peer pressure, stress, poor relationships with adults, escape feelings, and an attitude of challenging the system.

Attendance counselor
Gwen Pederson Another member of the Stearns County Collaborative working with the high school and middle school students is Gwen Pedersen, St. Cloud.

Pedersen is a graduate of St. Cloud State University with a master's degree in counseling. She has an emphasis on families. She is currently taking classes for certification in marriage and family therapy.

The middle and high school adminis-tration started to be concerned about a pattern of attendance in certain students. At a meeting with the collaborative, the district was asked if it had a truancy problem. "No, we have an attendance problem," replied Deb Gillman, middle school principal.

The attendance problem started as a high school issue but it was decided to address the problem earlier, in middle school students. The collaborative liked the proposal of identifying the problem earlier, looking at the whole picture.

"Attendance is a sensitive area," Gillman said. She explained students with attendance problems lack values and work ethic.

Pedersen will be working with students in school and with families in their homes to improve attendance.

Pedersen started last week in the middle school working with students who have missed more than 15 days already this school year. There are three students identified in the eighth grade and three more in the seventh grade.

She explained that she will be working to prevent a problem from becoming worse. Once a truancy problem has been identified the case is filed with law enforcement.

Pedersen will be at the school on Mondays and Thursdays. She will make home visits evenings. She hopes to eventually expand her time to three days a week in Paynesville.

"I plan on starting out working individually with students then meet with them in group discussions," she said.

Many times students miss school to avoid performing up to their ability. Pedersen said she will encourage accountability among the students.

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