Vandy encourages students’ one-on-one time with school counselor

Van Devender Middle School students Kiki Staats, left, Aries Cunningham, center left, Lily Wharton, center right, and Ethan Marshall, right, meet with school counselor Christy Bixman, center, and her therapy dog Amelia in Bixman’s new and more spacious office. The school administration has worked to increase Bixman’s counseling role and encourage more group meetings by moving her to a larger room. (Photo by Michael Erb)

PARKERSBURG — Van Devender Middle School’s guidance counselor is making time to sit down with each of the school’s more than 370 students.

Christy Bixman said she has been conducting “minute meetings” with individual students since the beginning of school, and hopes to have spoken to each of the 374 sixth- through eighth-grade students by the end of the first grading period in mid-October.

That goal could prove both rewarding and challenging, she said.

“I call them ‘minute meetings,’ but they’re actually about 15-20 minutes on average,” she said. “They are really enjoying talking and that one-on-one time.”

Bixman already is well known at the school thanks to her therapy dogs — Amelia, Duncan and Winston — who come to work with her on a rotating basis.

Van Devender Middle School counselor Christy Bixman, along with Amelia, one of her three therapy dogs, met with a group of students Friday in her new, more spacious office. (Photo by Michael Erb)

“A lot of the kids already know about me, which is great,” she said.

With the school’s new sixth-grade class, the initial meetings are intended to let them know what a guidance counselor does and to get them more familiar with Bixman and her therapy dogs, she said. With older students it is a good chance to touch base and re-establish relationships, Bixman said.

All of the meetings also provide Bixman with important information concerning the school population and the needs of the community. Bixman said she asks each student a series of questions, and their confidential answers are used by her to develop things like clubs and support groups.

“It helps us to focus on what groups would best serve the students,” Bixman said. “It’s all documented and data-driven.”

It also helps her identify students that need a little more attention and encouragement and those who would benefit from additional services, such as the school’s food pantry or clothes closet.

“Everything is kept confidential,” she said. “It just helps me to move them in the right direction.”

Principal Darlene Parsons said Vandy has a “high-need population,” meaning many of the students at the school face challenges outside of the normal middle-school adjustment. Those challenges can range from family health issues to finances to emotional or physical trauma, she said.

“We’ve worked closely over the past year on the counseling program,” Parsons said. “We try to minimize her non-counseling duties, like scheduling, to really focus on developing relationships with students,” she said.

Parsons said Bixman also was moved from a relatively small office to an actual classroom which includes space for group sessions.

Bixman said she hopes to present those changes to Wood County Schools as best practices in the hopes of seeing other school counselors have more of a chance to work on mental and emotional health issues with students.

“It’s been great so far, and I’m really excited to get to know the students better,” Bixman said. “Over the years we’ve seen a shift in how counseling is done here at the school, and I’m hoping that continues hopeful that other school counselors will be able to make that shift.”

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