Portsmouth Middle School student assistance counselor remains in budget

Position reduced, however; school budget now heads to council for consideration

By Kristen Ray
Posted 3/25/20

PORTSMOUTH — The Portsmouth Prevention Coalition (PPC) and Rhode Island Student Assistance Services (RISAS) made their voices loud and clear at the March 10 School Committee meeting …

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Portsmouth Middle School student assistance counselor remains in budget

Position reduced, however; school budget now heads to council for consideration

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — The Portsmouth Prevention Coalition (PPC) and Rhode Island Student Assistance Services (RISAS) made their voices loud and clear at the March 10 School Committee meeting — and it looks like their words mattered. 

After their previous draft budget drew controversy for putting the Portsmouth Middle School student assistance counselor position at risk, the School Committee approved a final recommendation Tuesday night that both met their own budget goal while keeping that role intact. 

Their vote for a town appropriation of 3.5 percent more for fiscal year 2021 comes two weeks after state and local prevention groups made their case for the committee to keep the PMS student assistance counselor position, which was on the chopping block as the district — then looking at a town appropriation of 3.7 percent — struggled to cut expenditures.

A three-day position added in 2018 and largely funded through the district, the counselor has worked closely with the PPC and RISAS to implement prevention measures at the middle school level, offering them the tools to prepare them for high school. 

“These kids are going into high school with a lot of peer pressure,” said PPC coordinator Esther Hurlock. 

Should that position be eliminated, it could have detrimental impacts on those students, Ms. Hurlock said. According to data from the 2018 Rhode Island Student Survey, starting at age 11, students are more likely each year to try alcohol, marijuana and vaping products for the first time, peaking at age 15. Compared to high schoolers, middle school students were both more likely to make a plan and seriously consider attempting suicide. Nearly half of all eighth-graders did not view marijuana use to be risky nor harmful, she said.

“We really need to be a part of the noise of getting that correct information to our middle schoolers,” Ms. Hurlock said. 

Being proactive

After starting out as a pilot program in just four high schools back in 1987, RISAS has now implemented its Project SUCCESS curriculum in 57 middle and high schools in 32 districts, one of which is Portsmouth. A major goal of the program, its founding director Sarah Dinklage said, is to both delay and decrease use amongst students. 

“The longer you delay use, the less likely a child is going to develop a serious problem with substance use,” she said. 

It is a “priceless” bond that has been formed between students and the counselors, said Ray Davis, assistant director of the Newport County Regional Coalition, who said he was speaking as a Portsmouth resident.

For eight years, Mr. Davis was heavily involved in advocating for student assistance. While participating in confidential focus groups, Mr. Davis said a large portion of students had reported the student assistance counselor was somebody they trusted, and could approach with substance abuse or mental health issues. In the 2018-19 academic year, 75 students saw the PMS student assistance counselor; Ms. Dinklage said they are on track to do the same this year as well. 

While PCC Chairwoman Marianne Raymo said the group could possibly contribute $5,000 or $10,000 in order to keep the position, she said the coalition was not prepared to fund it all. Splitting the student assistance counselor between the middle and high schools like the district had tried to do in past would also not be a good solution, she added. 

“We all know what happened in the spring of 2018,” she said. 

Though resident Larry Fitzmorris said he understood the committee was going to have to make some tough decisions throughout the budget process, he urged them to reconsider cutting this position. 

“There are some things you shouldn’t throw overboard, and this is one of them,” he said. 

With the help of a pledged donation from the PPC, Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy and Director of Finance Chris Diluro returned on Tuesday with a final recommendation that kept the PMS student assistance counselor on board for two days a week. The committee voted unanimously (Allen Shers being absent) for that final budget, which will next head to the Town Council for its consideration. 

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.