Family counseling expands Grant enables program to reach wider clientele

November 13, 1995|By Vikki Valentine | Vikki Valentine,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

With the help of a $9,700 United Way grant, St. John's Lane Elementary School in Ellicott City has expanded a family counseling program beyond low-income families to any family at the school in need of counseling services.

The grant, which covers the 1995-1996 school year, also has allowed the school to offer its homework club and mentoring program to more than just low-income students.

Starting tomorrow, the school will begin a six-session group workshop for parents and children that focuses on improving family relations.

The aim of the multifaceted program, developed by Family and Children's Services and St. John's Lane, is to help children better work out problems in their home lives.

Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland is a private, nonprofit organization that offers licensed counseling services to families, many of whom can't afford private counseling.

"Our feeling is that there is a limited benefit in working with a child -- particularly an elementary school-aged child -- individually, without the family being involved," said Elizabeth Ferrugia, district director of Howard County's Family and Children's Services, located in Ellicott City.

Parents need to be involved in the counseling process, she said, "because a young child can't make a change at all unless there is the support of the family."

Peter Finck, the county's supervisor of pupil personnel workers, said the services being offered at St. John's Lane differ from those usually offered by school guidance counselors.

Guidance counselors typically focus "on some issue that occurs at school," he said. "The focus of Family and Children's Services is on issues that occur at home or in the neighborhood."

The United Way grant allows for nine families of any income who have been designated in need of services to receive free, long-term counseling at the school with a licensed social worker.

Last year, under a separate program, only four families received counseling, not always at the school, and the bills were paid through the state's Medical Assistance program.

This year, five families have signed up for the United Way-funded counseling program. Social worker Lori Mannino has dealt with such issues as drug addiction, family breakups and helping parents cope with children with attention deficit disorder.

In addition, about 40 students -- from a variety of backgrounds -- participate in St. John's Lane's homework club. About 30 students, also from a variety of backgrounds, are involved in the school's mentoring program.

St. John's was chosen for the counseling program because the need was there, Ms. Ferrugia said. Twenty percent of the school's more than 800 students frequently are absent, have poor grades or are disruptive in class. Some are homeless, said Ms. Ferrugia, or live in subsidized housing and come from single-parent or young-parent families.

But Vice Principal Darlene Fila saw no reason why the program should be limited to low-income or at-risk students and was instrumental in having it expanded to students of all income levels.

"When we got started, we realized that the services we were providing our target population were services that could be helpful to all families," Ms. Fila said.

For families that could afford counseling elsewhere, counseling at the school provides a more familiar alternative to possibly intimidating private services, Ms. Fila said. "It's kind of a nice, safe place to be."

And for lower-income families without cars, the grant pays for cab transportation to the school for counseling, giving them convenient access.

"If you don't have a car in Howard County, you're stuck," Ms. Mannino said. "We're willing to pay for a cab for someone to get in."

Family and Children's Services also counsels families at Deep Run and Laurel Woods elementaries, but the programs there are not as comprehensive as at St. John's Lane, Ms. Ferrugia said .

At this point, no plans exist to take the United Way counseling program to other Howard County schools, said Mr. Finck, citing cost as a factor. But other schools still are hoping to learn from the St. John's program.

"I know that other schools have seen the services we're offering," said Marlene Waddy, St. John's Lane guidance counselor. "And as a result, this has become a model of what [schools] can do."

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