SOE News

School counselors: Advising and supporting students with diverse needs

Photo of John Galassi

John Galassi,
professor and program coordinator



Photo of Patrick Akos

Patrick Akos,
associate professor



Photo of Dana Griffin

Dana Griffin,
assistant professor



Photo of Rebecca Atkins

Rebecca Atkins (M.Ed. ’03), counselor at Millbrook Elementary School in Raleigh and Wake County’s 2007 Elementary School Counselor of the Year

School Website


Photo of Kelli Kirk

Kelli Kirk (M.Ed. ’04), counselor at Sycamore Creek Elementary School in Raleigh and Wake County’s 2008 Elementary School Counselor of the Year

School Website

The UNC School of Education is home to nine different master’s degree programs, including the Master of Education (M.Ed.) in School Counseling, which is ranked in the top 20 school counseling programs in the country by U.S. News & World Report.

The UNC School Counseling program has grown over the years, adapting to meet the changing needs of K-12 students in North Carolina and the United States. The program had its genesis in School of Education course offerings dating back to 1929, when a course entitled “Guidance and Administration of Elementary School Pupils” was first taught by Professor John McKee.

During the 1930s, more guidance courses were added to the School’s curriculum, and by 1940, students seeking to earn a master’s degree in education were required to demonstrate proficiency in two of the following fields: educational psychology, elementary education, history and comparative education, and guidance and personnel work.

The counseling curriculum further expanded in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1965, Professors W.D. Perry, a longtime faculty member, and Luther Taff began offering a course in “Guidance Internship: Field Experience,” which evolved into student internships providing full-time work experience in a school setting by 1969. And by 1970, guidance was listed as one specialty area of the 30-semester hour master’s degree program in education.

Since that time, the M.Ed. in School Counseling has further expanded in scope, now requiring 60 semester hours of course work. Graduates of the program are eligible for N. C. licensure as school counselors at the advanced graduate level. The program is nationally accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (CACREP).

Several features of the program are unique among similar counseling programs. One is the duration of the M.Ed. program. The 14-month, 60-credit hour degree program begins each year in May and culminates in late July of the following year. “Most programs are two years long,” explains John Galassi, professor and current coordinator of the UNC program. “Our students complete the equivalent of two years of work in 14 months, with two summer sessions in addition to fall and spring semesters.”

Another special feature of the M.Ed. in School Counseling is its use of a cohort model. “We admit only full-time students into the program,” says Patrick Akos, associate professor. “They all go through the program together, and this promotes a lot of self-growth and introspection, which is critical to their development as counselors.”

The cohort model also encourages the formation of a cohesive group that works collectively through the diverse challenges that K-12 students and schools face. Because the program focuses exclusively on school counseling, it provides intensive preparation for the work that the students will do after graduation.

“Many other master’s-level counseling programs also enroll students who may be focusing on marriage and family therapy or group therapy, for example,” says Akos. “We have the luxury of tailoring our program specifically to school counseling.”

Another unique feature of the program is the internship component. During the first summer session, students are asked to specify their preference for an elementary, middle or high school placement. Then, in August, each student begins an internship that continues for the duration of the academic year.

“Our students are paired with a faculty member at UNC who serves as a university supervisor and with an on-site supervisor at the school where they do their internships,” Galassi says. “The students may begin by ‘shadowing’ a counselor at their school placement at the beginning of the year. By the end of the year, they are functioning almost as independent counselors. The structure of the program gives our students a lot of support as they grow and develop during the academic year.”

Graduates of the M.Ed. program in School Counseling laud the benefits of the internships. “What you do in August is completely different from what you do in June,” says Rebecca Atkins, a 2003 graduate who is now a school counselor at Millbrook Elementary School in Raleigh and was named Wake County’s Elementary School Counselor of the Year in 2007. “In August, you’re meeting the kids and explaining what you do. The following May or June, you’re preparing them for their next year of school, and in some cases, that means preparing them for the transition to middle school, which can be a real challenge.”

“Not many [master’s-level] programs provide a full-year internship,” says Kelli Kirk, a 2004 graduate who is now at Sycamore Creek Elementary School in Raleigh and was Wake County’s Elementary School Counselor of the Year in 2008. “I found our UNC faculty members to be very supportive, and our site supervisors during the internship also provided good mentoring and supportive relationships. The year-long internship was a critical part of my educational experience.”

Graduates of the program say they are well prepared to deal with the challenges they face in today’s diverse school environments. “Thanks to the rigors of the program, I feel highly qualified to design group or individual interventions, collaborate with faculty and staff and manage a program of counseling services to promote success for all students at my school,” says Phyllis Farlow, a 2005 graduate who is now a school counselor at Phillips Middle School in Chapel Hill. She was named the 2007 Support Person of the Year for her school and received a Leadership in Counseling award from Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools in 2007.

Though they say they love their work, school counselors acknowledge that it’s a demanding job. “The biggest challenge is occasionally being pulled in all directions,” says Kirk.  “My school is a year-round school, and I do everything from serving as the student support team coordinator, to giving school tours, meeting with parents of incoming kindergartners, and conducting individual and group counseling programs,” she says. “Some school counselors also serve as educational testing coordinators for their schools. You have to wear many hats and it can be a real challenge.”

Parents of children who receive counseling services say they benefit greatly from the skills that school counselors offer.  “Our daughter is a creative, academically advanced seven-year-old,” says the mother of a student at Millbrook Elementary in Raleigh.  “Last year, we used our school counselor, Rebecca Atkins, as a resource when we were trying to decide whether or not she should skip first grade.  We knew she was likely to be able to do the work, but we needed to know where she was socially,” she explains. “Rebecca's feedback about the issue helped us enormously in that decision.  We have felt more at ease when we have had some other personal issues, including deaths in the family, because Rebecca has been available to check on our daughter to be sure she is handling things well.”

Other parents voice similar praises. “I don't know how we could survive without the counselors at our school,” says another Wake County parent. “When my son was a fifth grader, he voluntarily signed up for an anger management group. This group dealt not only with how to control your behavior, but how to keep friends. He really learned a lot and was grateful for the help.” 

UNC Assistant Professor Dana Griffin says the School of Education’s counseling students leave the M.Ed. program as “highly skilled practitioners, who are knowledgeable about theory, as well as about the practical aspects of counseling in diverse school settings.”

“Our interns begin counseling even before they graduate from the program,” Griffin says. “We teach our students to be advocates and leaders within the profession, taking the newest model of counseling services into the schools. They lead by example, based on what they learn in our program, and they really make a difference in the schools.”