Get to know: Personal experience helped shape Casey Walker's mission as district counselor

Casey Walker poses for a photo in a hallway in Steel Valley High School

Casey Walker’s experience as a student growing up in the Baldwin School District helped shape her career and impacted her journey to Steel Valley. An admittedly poor performing student who suffered from anxiety, Walker found her footing at CCAC and eventually earned a degree in developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. While she initially thought she’d be a teacher, she found that working one-on-one with students was her calling.

She joined Steel Valley this school year as a district-wide counselor, with a focus on the middle school and high school. She shared more about her background and detailed some of the programs and initiatives she is implementing for students.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you give us a little bit of background about how your path brought you to Steel Valley?

After I graduated from Pitt with my bachelor's in developmental psychology, I worked for Wesley Family Services for a little while as a family focused therapist. It was not for me. I don't want to go in their house. I don't want to deal with billing. I don't want any of that. So, I went back to school. I went to IUP, but I went to the off branch in Monroeville, so I didn't have to go all the way out to Indiana. I spent three years there to get my masters in school counseling. I did really well at Pitt and IUP now that I was into things that I actually enjoyed. My program was a kind of a dual certification, so I'm a licensed school counselor, but I'm also eligible to be a (licensed professional counselor). My title is a master’s of education, nationally certified counselor. After I get however many hours of supervision, I will then become an LPC. So, that's cool that I had the option to do both. Once I get my LPC, I can still do outpatient therapy and things like that, but I prefer to be in the school and with kiddos. That’s where my heart lies.

My practicum was at Brentwood Middle School. I used my sixth graders as elementary school, and my seventh and eighth graders was my secondary practicum. It was during COVID, so I couldn't find anywhere to go. I was really grateful that I found a middle school and could do both. My internship was at Dr. Cleveland Stewart Jr. Elementary School in the Gateway School District. My secondary one was at Forbes Road Career Tech Center. Initially, I was like, ‘I don't want to do that at a tech center.’ But I loved it. It was the greatest thing ever. I got to see that side of things. Now, when kids talk about Steel Center, I know what the heck they're talking about. I know about the transferring of credits and how the programs actually work because I was able to see it there. I loved my supervisor. She taught me everything. All these little things in here (in her office), she bought for me whenever I graduated. She's just wonderful.

I graduated in the spring of 2021 and I got a job at Propel Braddock Hills Elementary and worked there for a year. It was a very difficult population. We had a couple Steel Valley kids but the majority were from Woodland Hills and Pittsburgh Public. I really liked my kids. I loved my co-workers. But I've never wanted to be in a charter school. I wanted to be a traditional public school. A friend of mine’s sister is at Barrett and sent me this job. I'm a grant funded position, but they're already talking about it not being only two years. So that's good. But, we'll cross that bridge when we get there.

For those who don’t know, what’s your official title and role in the district?

My title is district counselor. However, it's mostly secondary counselor. I am in the middle school and high school every day. I help down at Barrett running groups on Wednesday afternoons. I’m not doing anything at Park at the moment. I do a lot of classroom lessons with fifth and sixth grade. I'm trying to implement a (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) process at Steel Valley because there isn’t one. We have a lot of supports that just aren't used in the most effective way. My goal is to get that all organized so that I can implement these universal screeners with kids. I started talking with Mr. Macuga and Mr. McCallister about doing those things here in the high school as far as getting those universal screeners done, making groups, pairing kids with certain teachers for check-in/check-out programs, different programs that are data based and driven, because the more data I have, the more data the school has to show what we're doing works, the better.

You mentioned getting a job during the pandemic. As we have emerged from the pandemic, are you seeing a lot of kids dealing with things that are maybe a result of that disruption?

We call it the COVID cliff. We had quite a few kids kind of fall over. It seems to be there are certain grades that it hit harder than others. And I don't know if that's because of the developmental level or what. It’s second grade. This year’s sixth graders are struggling hard. That's across the board - everyone I’ve talked to is like, ‘What happened with sixth grade?’ And then our freshmen this year are also struggling. Everyone’s struggling, but those seem to be the ones that it hit them right at a very crucial developmental level. And it's just hard for them to come back from.

Anxiety is through the roof. Depression is through the roof. Kids can't seem to handle stress the way that they used to. I can't handle stress the way that I used to now and I never used to be a nervous person in social situations. Now, it makes me nervous, being around a lot of people. You were pretty much in your house for at least the better part of that first year. We didn't really do anything. And then you're back out there, things are loud, every everyone's talking - it's nerve racking. Then, having the fear of getting sick, and our immune systems are down, so we're picking up all kinds of illnesses. Attendance is terrible.

I do feel like this year is better than last. And we're starting to make some progress again and get those kids back. But, it has been absolutely detrimental to everybody's mental health. Behaviors at the elementary level are pretty significant. And a lot of it is they just don't know how to be in school. They don't know how to be in there and control their emotions. I've  talked with Mr. Macuga a lot about that. As a counselor, and I say this to everyone, I teach you how to be a person, I'm going to teach you how to take care of yourself, take care of your emotions, talk to other people, do all the things that you come to school for. But we're also teaching you how to be a person and how to succeed in society, how to get a job someday, all the things that you don't realize you're being taught while you're in this environment.

People on the outside may see the term counselor and think that you're dealing largely with students who maybe have IEPs. But your services are available to anyone who may be struggling, right?

It's everybody. I see life skills kids, I see emotional support kids, I see your general education classrooms. I see everybody in that. That's kind of my goal. These tier one interventions that I want to implement are for everybody. Everybody gets the same screener. And then when we get that data, we break them down into how we can best target that population that we have grouped them with.

I've had kids that people were like, ‘I never thought that they had anything going on.’ Well, we all have stuff going on. So, we all can go talk to somebody, but I'll have certain kids come in that they're like, ‘Well, they've been fine for however many years.’ They're still fine. But they didn't have that person that they could come talk to. And now that they do, I encourage them to come talk to me. It's going to make them a better well-rounded person. They have to advocate for themselves and maybe they hadn't until I got here.

I call myself a school counselor. When I was in school, I had guidance counselors. It was all career, SATs, grades, courses. That's the boring part of the job. My job as a school counselor is teaching you how to be a person. I’m here for you. I've got your back. I'm your advocate. I can be more of a parent for those kids that need those types of things. It's a fluid role.

You mentioned putting in the MTSS. Are there other programs or resources that you've been able to get off the ground that people should know about?

Second Step is a curriculum that we're using in the middle school. They use it at Barrett, but they also got the digital version for the middle school. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I go into fifth and sixth grade during their A.R. periods, which is like a study hall. There are lessons on setting goals, bullying, all the types of things that are pertinent to middle school. We are going to hopefully shift to seventh and eighth grade next after the break. We're going to try and partner with the social studies teachers and I'll come in once a week, try and get that program off the ground. And then hopefully, we'll be able to give it to the teachers and say, ‘Okay, once a week during your A.R. go ahead and do this lesson, it's all done for you, we're ready to go.’

We are researching curriculums that may be better for this demographic. Second Step is OK. It's a little cheesy, and it's not super diverse. I think there are better programs out there that they would relate to more and appreciate seeing more. I put a whole list together for Ms. Kozusco and I to look over and we're going to do that.

We're working on getting more career lessons in place to try and get all of those artifacts ready to go. Starting in January, (guidance counselor Jason Novak) and I are going to start with the 10th and 11th grade, and give them a couple of projects to do and start thinking about their future. They take a career class in ninth grade where they get it pretty good and we use those artifacts. Then their senior project over here with Mr. Goga is huge for their senior year, but in 10th and 11th grade, they kind of lose it. So, we're going to go in there and get those artifacts done. But the main thing that I am pushing is the MTSS and tier one, whole classroom lessons. Because I firmly believe the more you push those tier one interventions, the less you're going to see two and three. And if you don't, we got to switch our tier one interventions because they're not working.

If a parent, family member, friend notices that a student is maybe struggling a little bit or just hasn't been themselves, how do they access you? How do they begin that conversation to try and help that student out?

Usually by email. My phone number’s on the website, they can call me. I get a lot from Mr. Strom and Mr. Brown, whether they hear from the teacher or the parent, and then they send it my way. Anything that a teacher or principal or administrator or secretary hears that includes my buzzwords - they're anxious, they're not feeling well, they don't want to come to school, they're having a problem with another student - it pretty much comes my way. I've had friends try to convince their friends to come here and it's worked that way. I have those appointment requests up there. Outside, I have one for middle school, one for high school, I also have the middle school one down on Ms. Large’s door because they're down there more often. They can fill that out, put it in there, I pull it in here, and I'll call them down during whatever the best period is, or call them. I am very accessible. I think that parents feel better knowing that there is someone here that they can talk to you. I will do pretty much anything to help these kids. So, they can call me, they can email me, they can come here.

Is there a mechanism in place where a kid can see without parent permission? Or is parent permission required?

Since I work for the school, they can come in and out, they can talk to me. I have some kids that I meet with every single Monday and we work on certain goals. If I'm meeting with the kid regularly, and I'm counseling them, there’s an informed consent to fill out. I do that to protect myself. That scares people because they get that letter, and it has the limits to confidentiality on it and it looks like it's from a lawyer. It's just saying you give me permission to talk to your kiddo about whatever they want to talk about. I will keep it between the kid and I, unless specific things happen - if you say they're going to hurt themselves, someone's hurting them, they're going to hurt somebody else, or there is a court order, or what have you. Usually, I'll send it home and I'll make a call on the same day and say, ‘Here's what this form is, it's coming your way. It's not as scary as it sounds. It's just written that way intentionally, to make sure that everybody's protected.’ Parents are very open to helping their kids more so now than before. The push for mental health services for kids - for everybody - has been huge. And it's so needed.

When I was in high school, I was a very anxious kid. I had a 504. I was a mess. That’s why my grades were bad. It's not that I didn't care. It's that I couldn't. There were certain classrooms that I was like, ‘I just can't be in here.’ I had a couple people that I had problems with.

I didn't have a person that I could go to and talk to about it. In middle school, I loved my counselor. But once I left her in high school, I really struggled. I didn't have that person. And the counselor that was assigned to me by my last name was not helpful to me by any means. I would meet with her like twice a year to make my schedule. That's it. Other than that, I did not talk to her. I didn't have that person. So, I try to be that person for kids that they can go to whenever they feel like they don't have anybody else.

Casey Walker poses for a photo in a hallway in Steel Valley High School