August 5, 2009

Student Counsel

A graduate student in school psychology helps kids who might not otherwise have an ear in one of Boston’s oldest, toughest public schools

By Helene Ragovin

The chatter around the table is a rapid-fire mix of English and Spanish as three teenage girls focus their attention on a set of palettes and watercolor paints. The girls carefully combine the paints to make purple from rojo and azul and café from red, blue and yellow, blending their two languages as easily as they blend the colors.

“Rarely in an urban school would you be able to get this kind of counseling experience,” says Melissa Marsh, G09, of the girls’ art therapy group she helped lead. Photo: Alonso Nichols

The girls are enrolled at Boston’s English High School, and the watercolor activity is part of an after-school bilingual art therapy group for Latina students. While this part of the session is much like a typical art class, concentrating on the mechanics of watercolor technique, the girls will later use this newly acquired skill as they work with school therapists.

On this spring afternoon, one of the therapists is Melissa Marsh, G09, then a graduate student in education in the School of Arts and Sciences. Marsh—who since has completed the graduate program in school psychology—spent much of the past year at Boston English as a trainee in an internship program that pairs graduate students with mentors from Children’s Hospital in Boston and the Boston Public Schools and prepares them for careers in urban schools.

“Rarely in an urban school would you be able to get this kind of counseling experience,” says Marsh. In addition to the girls’ art therapy group, Marsh helped lead sessions in stress management for teens who are trying to juggle the demands of getting through high school with the other realities of their lives—which, at an inner-city school like English, usually include family poverty and neighborhood violence.

“In the Tufts school psychology program, there is so much emphasis on learning about kids in their context,” Marsh says. Training at Boston English has allowed her to learn about the students and their mental health needs as they relate to family culture, urban culture, overall adolescent development—and the workings of a giant public school system.

The internship is run through the Student Support Office at English in conjunction with Children’s Hospital Neighborhood Partnerships (CHNP), the community outreach arm of the hospital’s department of psychiatry. CHNP was founded in 2002 to provide accessible and affordable mental health care for children and families in the city.

One way that CHNP fills this need is by providing training and consultation at 13 Boston schools: 12 public and one parochial. This is a particularly important program, since 70 percent of Boston children who receive mental health services get them at school. For each of the past five years, at least one Tufts graduate student has been among the CHNP trainees.

The CHNP internship, which has been financially supported by Tufts’ Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service and the Office of the Provost, is “a great fit for our students,” according to assistant professor Steven Luz-Alterman, interim director of the graduate program in school psychology. He notes that most interns in the Boston Public Schools are limited to performing psychological assessments, a role that wouldn’t suit Tufts graduate students, who are “trained to provide a much broader spectrum of services.”

Poverty at the Root of It All

During the 2008–09 academic year, there were 16 third-year graduate students in Tufts’ school psychology program. With elementary and secondary schools everywhere facing financial constraints, the demand for school psychology interns has increased, Luz-Alterman says. And despite the volatile economic times, the need for school psychologists is still strong, he adds. Recently, U.S. News & World Report listed school psychologist among its “Best Careers for 2009.”

With the onset of the recession and rising unemployment, many middle- and upper-income school districts are facing an increased need for mental health services, as families who were once able to afford private services are turning more often to the schools, according to Luz-Alterman. “There is a tremendous strain being placed on the system to try to provide for those needs,” he says.

But at struggling city schools like English, these needs have long existed. Until recently, the imposing building in Jamaica Plain housed close to 1,300 students in a space designed for 800. Now, because the school was chronically underperforming on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests (MCAS), required for high school graduation, Boston English was re-designated as a “Commonwealth Pilot School,” a move designed to boost student achievement through rigorous reform and by reducing enrollment to 800 students.

During the past academic year, the Student Support Office received close to 400 referrals for students recommended for psychological services of one sort or another, according to Soundhari Balaguru, a clinical psychologist who is the training coordinator for CHNP.

The underlying issue, which exacerbates everything else the students face, says Balaguru, is poverty. At least 86 percent of the students at English during the past academic year qualified for free- or reduced-price meals—an indicator of low-income status—and it’s likely that closer to 100 percent of the students came from families with significant economic need, she says. By the end of the school year, there were at least 100 homeless students among the high school population.

“A very powerful context is the context of poverty and thinking about our students operating within that context and what that brings with it—community violence; homelessness; drug-dealing; parents struggling to get or keep jobs; parents who have two or three jobs; students working upwards of 20 hours a week themselves—it really becomes very clear,” Balaguru says.

On an individual basis, these issues manifest themselves in a multitude of ways, says Melissa Rocklin, a social worker for CHNP who co-facilitated the art therapy group with Marsh. It could be a student who is exhausted from the strain of working long hours at a job after school, or who has been left as a de-facto parent to younger siblings. It could be the psychological pain of a family fractured by immigration or unstable relationships, or the stress of living with persistent crime and the threat of violence.

“I worked with a student who had been held up twice for his cell phone,” Marsh says. “But he minimized that, because he said so many other kids had seen worse, or been through worse. Other kids he knew had actually been hurt.

“But when you’re in ninth grade, getting held up—that’s a serious experience to have,” she says.

“One girl I worked with, she said that her friends called her spoiled because she has a house and a father in that house,” Marsh continues. “So she feels guilty for having her own problems, when she has these things—a house, a father—that most other kids don’t. In another context, things like that would be a given.”

And then there’s the typical teenage stuff, says Balaguru: “You know: ‘this boy asked me out, but I don’t like him.’ They’re just living their lives. Our kids are resilient.

“You want to be careful not to pathologize an entire community,” Balaguru says. “What’s hard is when kids are not able to see the best of the future for themselves, when they’re not seeing what education can do for them because they don’t have role models. We want them to develop a strong sense of self and the ability to look beyond the current context and into the future.”

All students in Tufts’ three-year school psychology graduate degree program must complete a full-time internship during their final year, in addition to part-time fieldwork during their first two years. The students work at schools ranging from urban—Boston and Lawrence—to suburban and urban-rim. Since the CHNP internship is only a part-time program, Tufts students affiliated with CHNP must also complete another part-time internship during their third year. Marsh, for example, also trained at a school in Cambridge.

For Marsh, who has an undergraduate degree in psychology and art from Skidmore College, the year at English helped her make a significant leap as a therapist. In the beginning, Marsh says, she was “hyper-aware” of the differences in cultural background between herself and the students.

“I would wonder: how can I encourage, say, graduating from high school, or college access, if I was from a different background. Would the students relate to me? And over the course of the year, it became less of a concern in everyday relationships. I was seeing them as students and building on their strengths and not focusing so much on who I was in the interaction,” she says.

This article appears in the Summer 2009 issue of Alma Matters magazine. Helene Ragovin can be reached at

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