NIA O’CONNOR offerings counseling support to students at St. Mary’s School in Waterford as part of an agreement between the Albany diocesan schools and Catapult Learning. The initiative is funded by the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation and the diocesan school board. (Emily Benson photo)
NIA O’CONNOR offerings counseling support to students at St. Mary’s School in Waterford as part of an agreement between the Albany diocesan schools and Catapult Learning. The initiative is funded by the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation and the diocesan school board. (Emily Benson photo)

Nia O’Connor heads to work at St. Mary’s School in Waterford every Monday. Her “office” is set up in the school’s art room: it’s two chairs, separated by a table, where O’Connor sits and spends her day talking with students from all grades about how they’re feeling or how their classes are going.
She is the second counselor to come to St. Mary’s, and with just a year under her belt, O’Connor’s presence is proving to be an important resource for the school.

“Nia has become a member of our school family,” said Matthew Rucinski, principal. “She’s working with teachers and families (and) she’s in conferences and meetings with teachers.”

In a time when the need for the counseling services that ­O’Connor offers are on the rise, the Albany diocesan schools are taking note. Thanks to funding from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation and the Albany Diocesan School Board, local Catholic schools were able to expand their counseling support and programs for the 2020-21 school year and beyond.

The counseling services are provided from a partnership with Catapult Learning, a nationwide agency providing K-12 contracted instructional services, such as math intervention, mentoring or counseling. The Catho­lic Schools Office partnered with Catapult Learning in 2018 to assist with the implementation of the “Counseling Services and Family Connections program.

Counselors would normally visit their assigned diocesan school one day every other week, but thanks to recent funding, the agency has been able to increase services so each building has a counselor available to them one day per week.

“We have counselors in every single elementary school and a social worker who provides services as needed to all high schools,” said Sandra Blanchard, specialized services supervisor for Catapult Learning. “We have a presence in all of the schools in one form or another, physically or remote depending on the need of the schools.”

The program provides diocesan schools with individual counseling, small group counseling, some larger classroom work and support for teachers and parents. O’Connor works on socialization and behavior with a number of her students, helping them to build confidence or work on coping skills.

Because elementary schools often lack their own counselor, Blanchard says the program “can really fill a need that those schools have.”

“The (Albany diocesan) schools recognize there’s a big emotional need component and by being there we’re able to help with that,” she said. “We’re able to assimilate the students, work with students on behavior challenges, all those things that would have been missed.”

Some diocesan schools — such as St. Mary’s — are even choosing to use their own funds to hire Catapult Learning counselors for additional school days. Rucinski joined the diocesan counseling program for the 2019-20 school year with one counselor visiting students one day every other week. After a turbulent year with COVID-19 and seeing the program’s benefits, he decided to invest some of St. Mary’s own funding to increase visits.

Now, O’Connor visits the school every other Thursday on top of her regular Monday visits. Rucinski notes that even with the extra day, “our days are filled” with students meeting with ­O’Connor.

Other diocesan schools that increased counselor visits include: St. Madeleine Sophie School in Guilderland, St. Jude the Apostle School in Wynant­skill and St. Kateri Tekakwitha School in Schenectady.

“The whole system of school has changed so dramatically (with COVID-19) and I think our schools in the Diocese have done a phenomenal job of meeting kids where they’re at and providing that continued education service,” Blanchard said.