For many of today’s high school students, life is a daily drama filled with plenty of outside-the-classroom distractions. The job of keeping these young people focused on their studies falls often times on the school counselors.
Michael Dean comes to his position as a counselor at Hoover High with some relevant experience.
“Before I started working in schools, I worked for juvenile delinquents and I did a lot of counseling and mentoring with juvenile delinquents and at-risk kids,” he says.
Dean has found these same troubled young people in the public education system.
“You’ve got some kids who are involved in gangs and illegal activity, and some of the time that stuff carries over to schools," he says. "You’ve got some kids who don’t know where they’re going to eat from day-to-day because their parents don’t have jobs.”
At Hoover, about 75 percent of the students live near the poverty line of around $26,000 annual income for a family of four. Two other high schools in Des Moines report larger percentages. This means they qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Food insecurity is just one of the distractions outside the hallways that make attending class tough for many students. Former teacher Janet Stribling has been a counselor at Hoover for four years.
“It’s obvious that some of them don’t have good home lives," she says. "I mean, we have some that are homeless, who live in cars.”
And, she adds, the counselors may not be hearing the worst of it.
“Some students are more resilient than other students," she says. "Some students deal with a lot of things we don’t even know about. They don’t open up to us and they hold a lot of things inside.”
They may be holding it in during face-to-face encounters. But Michael Dean says the age of social media has brought a whole new set of worries.
“Kids now start out at a young age being on phones and tablets and playing video games," he says. "And a lot of them have a relationship with the screen, but they can’t have a relationship with a person one-on-one.”
And this, the counselors say, can lead to serious problems. Tracy Levang works with eighth and ninth graders at Hoover and the attached Meredith Middle School. She recently intervened when a depressed, suicidal boy started writing some very disturbing messages.
“He finally said, gosh I just wish my family was normal, and I just wish I could be like everybody else," she says. "It’s sad to hear when kids are so thirsty and begging for normalcy and their families just can’t provide that for them.”
The scourge of teenage suicides is on the rise in Iowa, hitting prosperous, suburban school districts around Des Moines hard. Levang says the threat of such tragedies weighs heavily on counselors.
“It’s hard to leave it at school, it comes home with us," she says. "I always tell my husband, I’m not here to talk about work tonight.”
Levang offers an example of the modern-day student’s mindset. She says after gunfire disrupted Hoover’s Homecoming football game last fall, few students blinked an eye.
“It wasn’t anything shocking for our students to hear gun shots," she says. "I think when they go home to their neighborhoods this is the kind of life that they live.”
More recently, an after-school brawl featuring at least a dozen students resulted in a minor stabbing at Hoover. It’s not all high drama for today’s school counselors. They spend quite a bit of time simply adjusting class schedules for students. But some of that work leads to stories such as that of senior Victoria Htoo. She was born in a refugee camp in Thailand as her parents fled nearby Burma. Her father died not long after the family arrived in Des Moines, leaving her mother to raise eight children. Hoover counselors kept Victoria on track to become the first in her family to attend college.
“I’m doing it for my family and my mom," she says. "Especially my mom because she’s been through those struggles just so I can have a better future.”
Victoria, Michael Dean says, represents what counselors want for all their students.
“It’s our job to educate them as best as possible, and get them help, and get them out into the real world after high school,” he says.