This article is the first in the Reaching Heights series “A Week In The Life at CH-UH Public Schools” exploring the realities of working in or attending the Cleveland Heights-University Heights public schools. Through interviews and observations, author Krissy Dietrich Gallagher gathered information and describes each position and its rewards and challenges. The names of students have been changed to protect their privacy. Reaching Heights is a non-profit organization in Cleveland Heights, Ohio that works to increase awareness and appreciation of the CH-UH public schools.
June 18, 2020 -- Mike Murray begins every morning the same way: Stationed in the hallway between Heights High’s main entrance and the cafeteria where he greets every student who walks by. There are hugs and high fives, plenty of fist bumps and words of encouragement.
Some kids hurry past, ready to tackle their first period class. Others stop to chat with their school counselor, tell him about the test they have coming up or about the game they played the night before, always seeking advice for the day ahead. Mr. Murray is happy to engage with every single one.
As a school counselor at Heights High for the past three years, after six at Roxboro Middle, Mr. Murray is a trusted confidante for students and teachers alike. Kids know that all they have to do in a moment of crisis is knock on the door to his office and they’ll be met with a friendly face and a helping hand. About thirty students do just that each and every day.
One student Mr. Murray greets in the hallway is Riley, who transferred to Heights from Florida as a junior. Now in 12th grade, they gush about the school that welcomed them, “Oh my god, this is like an actual education. I feel like a real person who can do something with my life.” They leave after telling Mr. Murray they have an idea for a new student club they want to start.
This is a regular part of his job: discovering the interests and passions of newly enrolled students and pointing them in the direction of appropriate classes, teams, and clubs. “I can almost always say, ‘We have a club for that.’” And, if not, students are welcome to find an adviser and start one themselves.
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Mr. Murray, and the other three school counselors who each follow about 400 students over the course of their high school careers, has a wide range of responsibilities. Scheduling courses is an obvious, but far from simple, task. Guiding each student as they select their courses, and ensuring those courses align with their graduation requirements, ability level, interests, and (of course) schedule, involves intense hours of work during “scheduling season” twice each year.
Mr. Murray also helps students as they decide what to do after graduating from high school. This can be an intense process, fraught with many factors outside of his control, and it continues from 9ththrough 12th grade, often with twists and turns. Some kids have never given a thought to life after graduation, while others know from day one that they’ll continue straight to college. Those still need Mr. Murray’s guidance in choosing schools that fit their interests, family circumstances, grades and abilities, and financial situations, and then applying to them.
For Megan, this process went smoothly: She’s always known she wants to study botany or plant sciences so Mr. Murray helped her pinpoint colleges with such programs and then narrow down her list to those schools she knew she’d be happy going to. She was accepted at every program she applied, including Michigan State and the University of Delaware. But her heart was set on Ohio University and, with a hefty scholarship in tow, that’s where she’ll head next fall.
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On the other end of the spectrum is Davell. He’s struggled through each of his five years of high school. He’s on an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) with diagnosed cognitive delays and follows a modified curriculum. He started this year off strong, with a new attitude, eager to earn the necessary credits to graduate. And then, . . . well, then his house burned down and his family lost everything. And a month later, his grandmother died. And a month after that, his father died. All unexpectedly.
“If Mr. Murray wasn’t here, I probably would’ve left,” he admits. “I don't know where. Just up and gone.” Instead, he’s committed to graduating this spring, largely due to a promise he made to his late father. He spends half of each day in class and the other half doing vocational work experience, a supervised opportunity for special education students to experience what it takes to have a job.
“This is how we plan for his future,” says Mr. Murray. “He gets job experience that he can put on an application and, if he makes a mistake, he has a teacher there to show him how to work through it.”
There’s also Tyler, who’s waiting to hear from Yale, and Eliana, a junior with a full AP course load who plans to travel to Vietnam this summer to observe surgeries with Doctors Without Borders. There’s Adam, whose interest in video games Mr. Murray helped transform into a Career Technical Education pathway in video game design. There’s Andre who jokes, “You don't want to see a disappointed Mr. Murray,” and who describes their relationship as “perfect. I can talk to him about anything.”
There’s Greg, who’s been a regular in Mr. Murray’s office since 6th grade, though he no longer spends his time there crying. Easily stressed by academic and social situations, the junior has learned strategies from Mr. Murray for managing the inevitable stressors he’ll face each day.
Mr. Murray is proud of how Greg can now process his emotions and use the supports available to him. And Greg is pleased to have somewhere to come each day, “a safe space with a person you trust,” as he describes Mr. Murray’s office.
There’s J’Amir, a freshman who attended a Cleveland charter school, arriving at Heights woefully behind. “They didn't teach us up to par,” he says of his former school. “My first semester here, I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to and I was still behind.”
But Mr. Murray encouraged him to take advantage of extra help from his teachers and he’s doing better. “Everyone was welcoming here, even the upperclassmen. At my old school, you had to hold your own.” Guiding students toward extra-curriculars inevitably has a positive influence on their grades, so Mr. Murray always tries to figure out what interest them. J’Amir is trying out for the baseball team, giving him that extra motivation to keep his grades up.
It’s not uncommon, says Mr. Murray, for students from charter schools to struggle academically when they arrive at Heights. “Kids who do online schooling may have missed an entire year’s worth of learning for not logging enough hours.” Since August 1st, 313 new students have enrolled at Heights, with almost as many having left, so he spends a fair amount of time interpreting transcripts. “We have to figure out equivalent classes for kids who’ve come from other districts, other states, other countries, charter, private, parochial, online schools. And we have to be 100% accurate or a kid might not graduate.”
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And there’s Darius.
Darius is “an interesting dude,” according to Mr. Murray. A gregarious young man with an impressive vocabulary, Darius has a dream of becoming a game designer with his own studio. But after researching the industry, he knows he needs a backup plan. “I don't want to go into debt. And I don't want to start college and have to drop out. If I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it right.”
He and Mr. Murray had been researching trade schools, calling around to various programs, and had settled on Darius getting certified as an electrician, a field which has always interested him. Then he drops the bomb on his counselor who, in Darius’ words, “both guides and counsels.” His mom has told him if he stays at home, he’ll have to pay rent. So now he’s planning to join the military. “Only as a means to an end,” he assures Mr. Murray. “This is a stepping stone where I can get certified and have some place to go.”
Active duty participation in the military will guarantee Darius tuition for his Bachelor’s degree though his ultimate goal is to earn a PhD. “I want to be successful not just for me, but for the child who might come in my future.”
Mr. Murray quickly adjusts, handing Darius a military brochure and promising to get him a one-on-one with a recruiter. As he says, “My experience each day is as varied as the kids.”
It’s not just kids who Mr. Murray guides and counsels. On a Tuesday when 28 students stopped into his office, 14 teachers did as well. Not just to say hi, but to seek his advice about specific students, discuss tactics for how to reach one who seems unreachable or where to refer one who’s struggling. Sometimes they need strategies for managing their own mounting stress, but mostly it’s to talk about their shared kids, to gain some insight on a student who they may have just met but who’s been known to Mr. Murray since middle school.
On that same day, he also had 27 emails and 6 phone calls from parents or students. Sometimes it’s about something easy, like a quick switch of two courses during this first week of the second semester. Sometimes, it’s more complicated: a parent seeking advice or assistance, hoping he can reach their child in a way that they can’t. “Often they want me to do the things I’m already doing: push their kids to take school seriously, encourage them to register for the tougher course, help them manage their time and workload, give them strategies for success.”
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And then there are the meetings. Whether it’s grade level meetings, the attendance taskforce, or the Student Support Team, school counselors spend a lot of time meeting with each other, fellow teachers and building administrators. They share a “Watch List” of any kids they’re concerned about, either academically or socio-emotionally.
Counselors sit in on all IEP meetings and are in charge of creating and managing 504 Plans. Many students can require 504s, which provide needed modifications and accommodations to a child’s education, for the first time in high school (unlike IEPs, which most students have had since the beginning of their formal schooling). Newly diagnosed medical or mental conditions can be common for high schoolers, so designing and implementing 504s are a major part of a counselor’s job.
They also plan and lead several evening presentations over the course of the year, including scheduling meetings for each grade level, meetings to introduce the College Credit Plus program, and to prepare parents of juniors for all that senior year entails. And they visit the district middle schools to meet with all 8th graders as they prepare their high school schedules.
This particular week the counselors each spent two full days visiting English classes to discuss course selection options for next fall with every student in the building. They start with class-wide presentations, going over grade-level requirements and options, explaining things like Advanced Placement and Career Technical Education. Over and over again, they drive home the graduation requirements set (and frequently changed) by the state of Ohio.
They then meet with each of their assigned students individually, to review their path, focusing attention on their chosen electives, the relative workload of one course versus another, making sure the puzzle pieces fit. These are necessary and important steps, but it means that Mr. Murray isn't available for the countless kids who stop by his room every day for emotional support.
“Kids with emotional needs, in my opinion, trump all else,” he says. Mr. Murray sees students on a daily basis who are dealing with homelessness, abuse, mental illness, or neglect. “Some of the most difficult cases are our foster kids. I may have a million different schedules to enter into the computer or paperwork to complete, and a kid comes in who misses their biological mom.”
He sighs, but only because he doesn't have more hours in the day. “That’s my work. The other stuff I can put off til later. I can do credit checks from home.” He has drawn the line at giving students his cell number. They know they can reach him via email which he checks regularly in the evenings, weekends, and over the summer. “If a kid’s in crisis, I can always connect with them. And I do.”
His job doesn't ever feel over, but he cherishes the moment he sees students walk across the stage at graduation. “I get to read the names,” he says, “and it’s the best part of my job.”
“I never come to work and look at the clock, wondering why today is dragging. If anything, I need more time.”
Mr. Murray holds an undergraduate degree in Sociology, a Masters in School Counseling, and a Principal’s License. “But my favorite degree is the one I got right here,” he says, referring to the high school diploma he earned from Heights High in 1998. “That’s the one that best prepared me for this job.”