In this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!
Counseling in an alternative school is likely to be different from counseling in most private or public schools because of the types of students the alternative schools serve. As a young counselor, I spent five summers counseling in an alternative school that was part of a large human services agency. The students, like most in alternative schools, were mostly high school students who had failed in the traditional school environment and were referred. The school also provided general educational development study and preparation for high school students and adults who lacked a high school degree. Other alternative schools exist to serve the educational and mental health or developmental needs of students with special needs.
Issues to Understand
First, alternative schools vary considerably. Many serve students unable to thrive in a traditional school environment. Others may be in therapeutic settings where treating mental health issues may be the principal focus. For example, some residential psychiatric treatment centers also have schools attached to their centers. Counselors in these schools will counsel students with a wide range of mental and emotional challenges, from developmentally delayed students to students with major depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia, to students who have been adjudicated through the courts, and many others.
Counseling in alternative schools can seem overwhelming due to the myriad of emotional, social, legal, familial, and academic issues. Counselors in alternative school settings will need to be resilient, patient, and able to set limits with sometimes angry and hostile students, and need to enjoy the vast challenges the setting offers. The academic aspect, though important in these schools, may actually take a “back seat” to the demanding personal and mental health issues. Counselors will need to be adept at addressing both personal and academic issues and be able to create dialogue with teachers, school officials, treatment center administrators, court officials, parents and guardians, and child protection services.
Best Aspects of the Job
The best part of the job may lie in the knowledge that you are counseling some of the most difficult-to-serve adolescents in society. The counselors I have met who were staffing alternative schools often cite this as the reason they remain in such settings in the face of great challenges. Other rewarding segments of the job cited are variability, adventure-based therapy (in some settings), a desire to start a career working with very difficult students so that they will be prepared to transition to traditional high schools where the challenges will seem less (or at least different), and a strong sense of accomplishment.
Challenging Aspects of the Job
Naturally, a significant challenge is the students attending the alternative school. Most students in alternative settings will possess significant academic, social, emotional, mental health, and legal issues. Salary is likely to be less in most alternative schools (though not in all as some alternative schools are run by the school district), and working conditions will likely be less than ideal. Alternative schools often receive less funding than their traditional counterparts, and the facilities may not be as well maintained. Some positions in alternative schools may be 12-month positions due to the reality that students are attending the school throughout the summer, especially if they wish to return to a more traditional school in the fall.
Occupational Outlook and Salary
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not compile statistics on alternative schools. Salaries are likely to be less than that in traditional schools, and occupational outlook is difficult to predict. It is possible that the demand for counselors in alternative schools will increase, though this is far from certain.