"A Space to be Heard:" Inside GHS' Student Support Office

Amanda and Kenonte

For those of us who attended conventional K-12 schools, a “visit to the office” has a very specific connotation, and it isn’t a good one. At Gateway High, however, you’ll find students not just willing but asking to go to the Student Support Office (SSO’s), and a peek inside hints at why: hanging plants, funky colored lights, cozy chairs and snacks abound in a space where anyone would be happy to spend a little time. But the relaxed aesthetic is just one small part of how the SSO is helping students develop positive relationships with their school community and caring adults – even in tough times.

Simply put, rather than a place where discipline is meted out for students who act up, the SSO is somewhere students can turn to get help having their needs met, both large and small, so that they can focus on being their best academically. This could be something as small as a little quiet time or help getting a bus pass, or something more complicated, like help mediating a conflict with peers or counseling to help deal with grief or anxiety. All of which are made possible by two folks who wear many different hats: Kenonte Howard, Student Support Coordinator, and Amanda Rodriguez, Student Interventionist.

“Our main goal is to create a space where students can express their point of view and feel fully heard, and then advocate for the best path forward for them,” said Amanda. “Sometimes that is helping them to be accountable – supporting them when they need to apologize to a teacher, for example – but a lot of times it's helping them find their voice so they can ask for what they need.”

Amanda, an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist, works closely with GHS’ Director of Counseling to address students’ mental health and social emotional needs, both through on-site counseling sessions and working with mental health resources in the broader community. For issues requiring less formal interventions, Kenonte is a student’s first point of contact, and a trusted ally in navigating the highs and lows of academic and social high school life.

“My first goal is always to help students resolve their issues without us having to resort to calling home, because in a few years calling home won’t be an option when they’re out in the world,” said Kenonte. “It’s not always easy at first, but we get to see the process of students growing from immature freshmen to seniors who are ready for anything, and that’s awesome.”

When classrooms went virtual due to COVID-19, so did the SSO, reaching out via Zoom and phone calls to ensure students felt safe and supported through an often frightening and confusing time. 

“Our case load had never been higher because so many more students wanted to check in with us, even as we were seeing students more sporadically because of their schedules, access to technology throughout the day, all those complicated factors,” said Amanda. “But being able to see kids in their own space at home, or meet their siblings over Zoom, and just being able to give them the opportunity to decompress a little was really powerful.”

The SSO has had a particularly busy year to date, as students have come seeking help transitioning back to campus life – many having never attended Gateway in person before – after such a long period at home.

“We definitely saw a lot of kids feeling the pressure this fall, whether that was trouble building relationships or re-building those friendships, feeling anxious, or just having issues with social cues,” said Kenonte. “I would say it’s just now getting back to “normal” based on how many students we usually see each day.”

So what is Kenonte and Amanda’s secret to getting teenagers, a famously reserved population, to open up and speak freely with adults? According to our SSO experts, the key is to be genuinely interested in what they care about, and being willing to be vulnerable with them, in turn. 

“If you try not to accept one word answers, and you’re really asking good questions about their friends and interests, they’ll eventually start to reveal more to you,” said Amanda. “And it’s so worth it. Whenever I feel cynical I can talk to a student and see their enthusiasm for the upcoming dance or something they just learned about, and there’s nothing more energizing than that.”