Four CUSD schools nationally recognized for counseling efforts

By Cathi Douglas

Four Capistrano Unified schools were recently recognized nationally for their excellence in school counseling and for cultivating productive and supportive learning communities.

Esencia K-8, Aliso Viejo Middle School, Vista del Mar Elementary School and Castille Elementary School are recipients of the 2021 RAMP Award from the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). Esencia and Aliso Viejo were also granted School of Distinction awards (RAMP stands for Recognized ASCA Model Program). Just eight schools in the state have ever earned the School of Distinction award.

The RAMP designation, given to schools that align with the criteria in the American School Counselor Association National Model, recognizes schools committed to delivering a data-informed school counseling program and an exemplary educational environment. The RAMP School of Distinction award honors schools with exceptionally high-caliber school counseling programs based on rankings determined by a panel of RAMP reviewers.

This year, 22 schools in California have earned the RAMP designation. Capistrano Unified School District now boasts 10 RAMP designated schools — the most of any district in the state.

Rebecca Pianta, the district’s coordinator of counseling and student support, says earning the RAMP distinction required a great deal of time, effort, and dedication from school counselors Cristina Nalbach of Vista del Mar, Alexandra Todd Vargas of Esencia, Andrew Fredriksz of Aliso Viejo and Kathie Ketchum of Castille. The programs will be recognized on July 13 at an ASCA Recognition Dinner in Las Vegas.

“The counselors must align their counseling practices with the ASCA model, which requires spending 80 percent of their time providing direct and indirect services to students,” Pianta explains.

“They take time to thoroughly assess the needs of the school by conducting assessments, hearing from parents, and customizing support for those needs,” she adds. “They work closely with school administration to make sure they are aligning their goals with the school goals, which isn’t possible unless they work collaboratively together.”

Aliso Viejo’s Fredriksz says his two interns, Shannon McCormack and Amy Argo, were instrumental in earning RAMP honors.

“I want to continue to try to implement the strongest counseling program possible, continuing interventions and adapting based on the students’ needs and the data,” Fredriksz says. “I want to continue to do what’s best for students, and to advocate for them and their rights.”

Aliso Viejo Principal Cynthia Steinert applauds his efforts.

“The RAMP award is rarely given and is thanks to the time and effort of our school counselor,” Steinert says. “Mr. Fredriksz sees the need, identifies the need through use of feedback and forms, and connects with the kids. He directly relates his efforts to the students and puts their needs first.”

Nalbach, of Vista del Mar, says the RAMP award is a “really big honor, because it shows that you’re doing everything possible to ensure that students have the best outcomes.

“You’re providing multi-tier support, individual and group counseling, and social and emotional lessons to students,” she says. “It shows that you are meeting data standards and that you have a school counseling advisory committee.”

Using data helps counselors identify critical areas of need in their schools and empowers them to create goals, she explains.

The RAMP standards provide a way for schools to hold themselves accountable and ensure a comprehensive school counseling program, Ketchum said.

“What’s coming out of it has been this really cool, transformative collaboration with my administrators and with my school,” Ketchum said, adding that the students, school and community are involved in the decision making and goal setting for the program. Several times each year she reviews school data to learn how the classes, interventions, and other programs are impacting students for the better. “We’re always looking for achievement gaps and wanting to close that gap.”

“I am so incredibly moved by the work that our school puts in to meet our students’ social-emotional and behavioral needs, and the amount of data they analyze so they’re able to provide them with the right support,” Castille Principal Shari Nelson said. “We feel truly honored to be recognized as a RAMP designated school.”

“School counselors are so important in how they support student needs and staff needs,” Nelson added.

“The RAMP award is validation for all the great work Cristina does in support of the children,” observes Vista del Mar Principal Troy Hunt. “To parents, it validates the work we do for their children.”

Esencia Principal Josh Welikson says that when the school opened three years ago, its founding principles included putting students before curriculum and knowing each student by their name and needs.

“The RAMP award is just the culmination of all the work being done by our counseling staff in making sure kids feel cared for and connected,” Welikson says. “I applaud Mrs. Vargas’s efforts in not only meeting our students’ academic needs but their emotional needs as well.”

Using data, Vargas says, she can show staff and administrators the areas that need improvement.

“Honor comes in different forms,” she observes. “It’s important to be true to myself and create a safe space for students, honor who they are, and ask them to trust me; advocating for students and assuring that each one has access to services and the possibility of achieving success.”

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