SUCCESS | Spotlight

Cal State L.A. graduate students and elementary school children explore, set and achieve behavior-improving goals

SUCCESS program is culminating counseling class for CSULA students earning PPS Credential for school psychology

Pictured: CSULA graduate students Kusi Martinez-Daly, Lynn Thomson, Karina Herrera, and Erica Salzman help celebrate the accomplishment of their SUCCESS clients.Pictured: Professor Sheri Atwater, El Sereno School Principal Cheryl Morelan, and LAUSD Organizational Facilitator Lorena Valencia address the SUCCESS students during the pizza party.Pictured: CSULA’s student coaches and their young clients celebrate the end of a SUCCESSful program with a pizza party.

After each filled their plates with several slices from a stack of warm pizza boxes on the other side of the classroom, sixth grader Devon Clark, third grader Christian Romero and two other boys laughed, poked fun and stealthily flicked a Cheese Puff or two at each other across their table.

Since it was a pizza party celebration, these classroom behaviors were okay (except for the Cheese Puff battle). The party was a reward for how much 18 El Sereno Elementary School students had improved since joining the SUCCESS individual counseling program, which teamed them up one-on-one with Cal State L.A. (CSULA) students earning their master’s degrees and Pupil Personnel Services (PPS) Credentials in school psychology.

SUCCESS Coach Tanisha Tatum, who is earning her master’s degree in counseling with an option in school psychology at CSULA, worked with Clark during the eight-week program. She assisted him in setting and completing goals that would help him overcome his behavioral and academic problems, hurdles that he identified himself with help from the program.

“I believe he learned a lot. He was already in a pretty good place in his life, he just needed us to spell out a lot of things for him,” said Tatum. “Most of his goals came from his own thoughts, but he needed a better way to articulate them and for us to come up with quality strategies that would help him get where he needed to be. He was really dedicated, especially the last few weeks. At the end, teachers and his parents were complimenting him and giving him rewards. We made tremendous progress.”

Fulfilling a requirement of CSULA’s Counseling 507: Individual Clinical Counseling course, the SUCCESS program enables CSULA graduate students to provide free counseling to school-age students in need of behavioral and academic coaching at Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schools. When they complete the course, the counselors will have earned their PPS credential, and the ability start receiving clients (under supervision for one year) in K-12 schools throughout California.

Like Tatum, Clark also recognized his improvement and said he “really liked” the positive feedback he received.

“I learned how to respect people, to be obedient and how to gain respect,” said Clark. “My goals were to be successful in everything I try to do, and to get good grades. I think I’m doing pretty well. I’ve met my goals! My teacher has noticed the difference.”

The SUCCESS program is the brainchild of Associate Professor Sheri Atwater, who teaches school psychology in the Division of Special Education and Counseling in the CSULA’s Charter College of Education. The program is a partnership between the College and LAUSD.

“For years, before I came to Cal State L.A. [in 2003], the master’s students took a similar clinical training class at the University,” said Atwater. “However, that program was dependent on the students and their parents coming to Cal State L.A. after school. Unfortunately, there were a lot of no-shows.”

Atwater continued, “My idea was to move the program to the elementary schools themselves, where they’re bound to show up, especially if an afterschool program exists. I’ve been doing this for about seven years now, so a lot of my students at CSULA have graduated to become school psychologists in local schools. One of them, who was a psychologist here at El Sereno, contacted me and said, ‘I’ve never worked at a school that needs more counseling than this one. I’m just one counselor and I can’t handle the case load. Is there any way you can move the program here?’ So I did just that.”

In a letter, El Sereno Elementary School Principal Cheryl Morelan wrote “the teachers and staff are beginning to see the results of this partnership. We’ve seen smiles on the faces of students who had never shown any signs of happiness before. We’ve seen students who never turned in homework bring all their assignments completed. We’ve seen students who never participated in class discussions raising their hands and sharing their ideas.”

To help the elementary students identify areas where they may need coaching, they are asked to fill out short questionnaires that solicit how they rate certain aspects of their lives on a 1 to10 scale, or smiley face to sad face for younger kids.

“We give the students a map of their life with different areas for school, friends, hobbies, future, and family and ask, ‘How is this area in your life?’ We want them to recognize that we care about the entire student. Of course, school is an important aspect, but there are other areas in their lives, too. Then we’ll ask the students ‘what two areas of your life do you rate the lowest?’ and those areas are generally where their SUCCESS goals are born,” said Atwater.

Throughout the program, the children learn strategies to reach their goals, and the counselors continuously check in to see what is not working to determine if tweaking is necessary. CSULA SUCCESS Coach Mark Juarez, who is also earning his master’s degree in counseling with an option in school psychology, worked with his client Christian Romero during the program.

“Christian was great. He was very enthusiastic, motivated, bright, responsive, and cooperative, and would always try the things we asked him to. I almost feel guilty to have had him as a client because he was so motivated and focused,” Juarez confessed. “His goals were to do all of his homework, to stay out of trouble and follow the school’s rules, so he can graduate and meet his ultimate goal of joining the special forces [in the military]. As a high school teacher, I’m used to dealing with the older kids, so this was new and an important experience for me.”

Romero summed up his successes after being coached by Juarez with an intentionally matter-of-fact and adult response.

“I learned a lot from my coach. I leaned to behave and succeed, to eventually graduate, and to do better things in my life. I now make sure my homework is done all the time,” he said. “I’ve really been doing well and working hard in school.”