Shirley Ferris made a plea for her job at the school board meeting at Courthouse Square last week. Not for herself. But for a position she’s held for years.
The popular counselor is about to step down after four decades in education. Due to a budget crisis Superintendent Terry Lindquist is working hard to resolve, her position — as it stands right now — will disappear when she retires in June.
With a reference to how much time a member of the public is allowed to speak at a school board meeting, Ferris smiled at the five board members and said, “It’s making a good Buddhist out of me to take 41 years of my life and explain to you in three minutes why it’s important.”
She then began to describe the life of a counselor at Vashon High School (VHS) — a job that requires her to be part parent, part academic adviser, that calls on her to run fast and hard every day, that is a mix of crisis intervention, loving hand-holding and an almost intimate connection with hundreds of kids.
Because she knew she wouldn’t have enough time to tell the board members all that she had to say, she then handed them a three-page paper about her job at VHS. Written hastily, the essay described how her professional life had unfolded only the day before, a sort of “day in the life of a counselor” piece that sweeps the reader along in its rapid-fire pace. Here’s an excerpt:
“On my desk were a few notes left by students the day before. One was a boy who wanted to see me right away, so I sent a call slip and in the meantime dove into the 11 phone messages awaiting me. Four were urgent: an unexpected divorce, a student coming back (from a psychiatric hospital), the death of a favorite grandparent, a concern about a student’s depression.” Then there were the 27 e-mails from parents, students and staff: “How can my son retake geometry during the summer, can you help my daughter with a problem, will you check in with my daughter’s teacher and get back to me today, can you call me at work, please talk to me about AP Chemistry, … I need to talk to you about a couple of students.”
A growing number of students, she says in her piece, are in crisis at Vashon High School. Quoting another administrator, she adds that too many kids don’t have the support they need at home.
Ferris fully understands the district’s need to balance the budget and the fact that Lindquist and the board have nothing but hard choices before them. She worries, though, that once her position is cut, it won’t be replaced. And if so, something intangible but critical will be lost at Vashon High School — something that separates Vashon from the huge districts, where counselors know only the students in need by name and where parents rarely get more than a cursory response to their requests.
School Board Chair Bob Hennessey said he’s not given up on Ferris’ position, even though it’s already been eliminated in the first round of cuts. We wish we could wave a wand and make the funds appear — like one of those mistakes in your checking account that’s in your favor.
Failing that, we support Hennessey and the rest of the board in doing whatever they can to save a position that helps to make Vashon High School a place with a little more warmth and heart than some of the other schools in our region.