EMPIRE — School counselor Sandra Ortega-Ramos took a bow this year for her service to Empire middle school students, those tween years when parents sometimes wonder what alien life form took over their children.
The Glick Middle School counselor is California League of Middle Schools Educator of the Year for Region 6, which includes Stanislaus and four other counties.
Last year, the 20-year Empire Union School District veteran added elementary school duties. Besides a host of ongoing programs, Ortega-Ramos brought in Community Hospice to lead grief groups at Glick and Empire Elementary School after several students lost close family members.
"What I appreciate most is the urgency that she exhibited as she made the transition to our school," said Hughes Elementary Principal Jeri Hamera. "Not a moment was wasted getting started as she recognizes the need at our sites."
The need is high at all sites. On average, Ortega-Ramos said, one in five students has a mental illness, and of those, only one in five gets help.
The most common issue is anxiety, which accounts for nearly a third of all visits to the nurse's office. Of other problems high on the list, she said, "Eating disorders are the most fatal, and the schools are more familiar with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)."
Ortega-Ramos spoke with The Bee about what she sees happening at middle schools and any words of wisdom to help parents better relate to kids during those transitional years.
Q: Why did you choose to work with middle school students?
A: When I first went into counseling, I wanted to encourage students to continue their education and go to college, so I started at the high school level, but I discovered there were bigger issues, like suicide, self-mutilation, teen pregnancy and other issues. Many students were also set in their ways.
I learned that there were more important things for some students, like survival. I also realized I needed to catch them younger, and that is how I ended up working with middle-school-age students. They were old enough to carry a conversation, but yet, young enough to guide them in the right direction.
Q: Why are those years of 10 to 14 so difficult?
A: Middle school age is a very critical point in a child's life. The transition period before adolescence is filled with change and opportunity. They experience many changes physically, socially and emotionally. (To succeed,) students need support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time, commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies and positive identity.
Q: Name some programs you've used that other schools could, too.
A: One of the things I like best about my job is the opportunity for proactive programs. In the Peer Helpers program, students learn conflict resolution skills and are then able to serve as conflict managers. Peer Helpers also assist with new-student orientation and serve as buddies to new students.
We have (an anti-tobacco grant) that assists us in having some tobacco education and life skills types of programs. Students serve as the "Tobacco Youth Site Council."
Project Citizen promotes competent and responsible participation in local and state government. In the 2011-2012 school year, our students from Glick Middle School scored an "outstanding" at the national level. The topic was an anti-bullying policy. Because of their hard work, we now have an anti-bullying policy contract the students sign at the beginning of each school year.
Another program I enjoy is Lunch Bunch. I adopted this program from my friend and colleague, Linda Ridenour. It's pretty much a safe place for students to go to during lunchtime and hang out with friends while playing some board games, pingpong, miniature pool or be creative with art. All students are welcomed, and it creates a sense of belonging.
Suspension Intervention is a six-week program for students who have been suspended for a total of three or more days. The goal is for students to learn to make better decisions and avoid suspension.
Q: How do you cope with more serious needs?
A: I've made several referrals to outside agencies. I also had NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) address our teachers and parents about recognizing early-onset mental illness in children and adolescents. I make it a point to be a team member to the teaching staff in assisting in helping the students to be able to focus and concentrate in class, by teaching social skills, anger management, reducing anxiety and other life skills students need, and I assist the administration with providing support services to students who are continually misbehaving.
Q: Do you do much work with parents?
A: One of the other programs I enjoy and facilitate is called 2nd Cup of Coffee. I hold monthly meetings in English and Spanish on various topics of interest to parents, like progress reports and interpreting (testing) results, after-school programs and interventions, college and university information, bullying, video game addiction, parenting your middle school student and many other topics that parents suggest. It is an opportunity for parents to meet other parents. It forms a sense of connection, and parents are kept informed about school events.
Q: Any advice for parents just entering those middle school years?
A: My advice or strategy to stay connected with your child is to listen. Let him or her know you love them. Many times we are quick to judge or tell them they are wrong, but we need to listen more and praise. Tell them, "I like the way you " or "I'm really proud of " or "I like it when you tell me about your day."