CullmanTimes.com - Cullman, Alabama

April 1, 2013

Karen Rowell: Counselor serves 347 children in challenging role

By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times

HOLLY POND — Every once in a while you run across someone like Holly Pond High School guidance counselor Karen Rowell, who loves her job. Her job is caring for kids, and she does it wholeheartedly.

Rowell is the sole guidance counselor for 347 children. Her job is demanding to say the least. Take this week for instance, she will be working on scholarship applications for seniors, helping them finalize college and career plans, is scheduled to work with sophomores on a career survey for the Chamber of Commerce career fair, and consulting with the juniors on college preparation.

Then there are newly arriving students who will need a schedule, plus other needs which change daily. Academic concerns and helping each child become successful to graduate is a big concern. Children who are struggling academically will need her attention before it is too late — before they give up.

Rowell got her master’s degree at Jacksonville State University. She started working at Holly Pond High School in 1980, as a part-time English teacher and part-time counselor. She was hired as a full-time counselor for K-12 and also taught English, a role she held for eight years until she became full-time counselor. Because of the need for counselors to be employed at each grade level, she later became the counselor for grades 7-12. She is now full-time with grades 9-12 and is also the building test coordinator.

“I’ve always felt called to this kind of work,” she smiled. “There was never anything else that interested me. I have compassion for others and feel a need to help. I do care about each child, and it is difficult to do a follow up, because you are always involved in what is taking place for that day, and in today’s world, the need is greater.”

Even when she was in high school herself, her peers relied on her advice, often coming to her with things they couldn’t talk to anyone else about. Her compassion, even back then, was obvious to those around her.

A former Holly Pond student, Jason Simpson, recalls Rowell’s influence on his life and career.

“Karen has always been a person who reaches out to everyone,” said Simpson. “I remember several times in her office she’d be dealing with scholarships, college questions, and personal issues all at the same time. As a high schooler, it was hard to understand just how special her gift of being a counselor and encourager was. She never turned down a request for help no matter what was going on; she always stayed on top of making sure her students were not short-sighted when it came to their futures. It was Karen that introduced me to James Spann in the Spring of 1998 when he was speaking to the third-grade class at Holly Pond; as small a thing as that was, it made the difference in a young man wishing he could do something and knowing that it was within his reach — as long as he worked hard and stayed on task.” Because of that introduction, Simpson went on to pursue a degree in meteorology, and is now Chief Meteorologist at Huntsville’s Channel 19.

Perhaps the best example of her willingness to go the extra mile is the time she spent with former Holly Pond student, Bruce Shaw, and his family following the accident which left Bruce paralyzed. Rowell, knowing how hard the situation was on a family still reeling from the shock, was there for them. Not only did she provide emotional support, but she found the time to do extensive research to find out the best place for Bruce’s rehabilitation. “She was instrumental in getting me into the Shepherd Center in Atlanta,” said Bruce. “I appreciate so much that she never gave up on me — she always believed in me and was very supportive.”

Bruce’s mother, Lec Shaw agrees with her son. “Mrs. Rowell helped us in many ways. Without her help we would never have found out about the Alabama Athletic Association’s program that helped with the van and other necessary equipment,” said Ms. Shaw.

As with the Shaws, Karen Rowell stays ready to research the needs of her students. She wrote a grant for $300,000 to update and replace computers for the school. There was only one computer lab and the computers were outdated, and the ones that worked sometimes had two students using a single computer.

She also does research to help support causes for individual students who may need monetary resources, frequently going outside to businesses and industries to seek assistance from the community. “I have had great support from Peoples Bank, the Adopt-a-School sponsor, as well as churches in the community, such as New Hope No. 2, Crosshaven, Pleasant View Baptist and First Methodist Church of Cullman, who have been very supportive to help with individual student needs.  Cullman Caring For Kids has also been very supportive,” says Rowell.

A lot of her time goes to testing. “Constantly, we are in meetings keeping up with the changes from the state,” she pointed out. “Currently, AHSGE is the state test that we have to guide and plan for students to test.

“This year sophomores will be taking the end of course exam, and soon we will be administering the ACT and work keys to all students,” she explained. “It is a transition time with the state department, creating new initiatives that school systems must follow. Testing and the changes which take place in testing are never ending. Counselors have to stay involved in every aspect of this area.”

 The four areas where counselors are committed to work in are personal development, educational development, social development, and career development. These are daily roles and responsibilities for every counselor statewide to be involved with.

Counselors never get finished. “There is always something left undone from the day before,” she said. “You take the day presented and you give the help and support that you can for that day and then the next day presents new needs.”   

Another aspect of Mrs. Rowell’s job is that she takes students on college trips or career trips. “I feel that students need exposure to the college atmosphere,” she explained. “I feel the need to be with them because students are intimidated about the whole college process and may not ask the right questions. I like to be there to help them become acquainted with college admissions, financial aid and housing issues and I like for students to feel good about his or her decision relating to the college process.”

In the Cullman County School system, there is only one counselor per school and each school counselor may have different responsibilities. For example, not only are the counselors concerned about the academic needs, social needs, or emotional needs of a child, some counselors have to enroll students, request records, and do the report card for each child. Sometimes personal contact with a student is limited due to the other requirements that take place in their role.

Rowell’s role in grades 9-12, along with the social, emotional or academic plans, is to help students with plans outside of high school. She is also a referral to business and industry helping students understand the employment needs in the community and she supports students in job search. While planning for students to graduate, the college admission test is an important part of the process and she has set up the ACT to be given at her school, which helps students with the travel issues. She also sets up seminars to get parents involved in the college and scholarship planning.  

She admits to getting a little teary-eyed when it comes to the kids she works with. “I carry their hurts and concerns with me,” she said. “Even if I can’t resolve it, I always want to know how things turn out for them and I do as much follow up as I can.”

One of the things she would like to see change is the ratio between counselors and students. “In some school systems there is one counselor for each grade, for the Cullman County counselors, the initial contact with the individual is limited due to the ratio of students per counselor,’” she explained.   

“I was in a meeting last week and the counselors all say the same thing, ‘not enough time’ or ‘if we just had clerical help’. Counselors do not have a secretary, so if they go to lunch, or step outside their office for a meeting, no one is there to take phone messages,” she said.

Rowell is concerned for the role of counselors. If there were clerical help for them, a lot of things that counselors do could be handled with that assistance, allowing more time for individual counseling.

In a perfect world, Rowell says that she would like to offer in-school counseling groups so that kids could voice their concerns. “They are dealing with so many issues in their lives,” she said. “Things like divorce, peer pressure, and academic concerns - if there were group counseling sessions so that they could express their feelings and get feedback from other students and from trained psychologists it would make a big difference for them. Counselors can do some intervention, but we are more like a referral source, helping parents connect with those who can offer trained support.”

Bullying is another issue that she deals with regularly. She was instrumental in developing a program in which students played a big part by helping to develop the bullying program, then they brought the issue to area schools. “We have a peer mentoring program at our school where peers discussed bullying to all students in grades 9-12,” she explained. “I have some very strong seniors involved who came before their peers to discuss a sensitive issue and the seniors involved this year, really stand strong in what they do. They did research and presented what they discovered about bullying to the whole school — class by class.”

The students developed a Power Point presentation which showed real life stories, the consequences of bullying, and some startling statistics. “This way all of the students could actually watch the results of what occurs socially, emotionally, physically and academically when a student is the victim of bullying,” explained Rowell.  

She noticed immediate results from this program. “Kids listen to other kids,” she pointed out. “They also realize the sincerity in our school administration: Principal Kim Butler; our resource officer, Shane Chambers; and Steve Miller, our assistant principal, all of whom promote zero tolerance for bullying.”

She would love to see more support for counseling, not just here, but statewide. “I’d rather be pro-active and try to prevent some of these problems before they happen,” she said.