“Small Steps to Growth”

– by Kaitlyn Dennehy

Counseling for School Success

Racker is no stranger to small successes, and the programs offered in partnership with TST & OCM BOCES are no different. It is these incremental changes that mark a much larger transformation in learning, behavior, and problem-solving for students of all ages.

Racker is proud to offer three expansive programs at BOCES through our Counseling for School Success department, including Turning Point (also known as the Day Treatment program) — which is offered at both TST BOCES in Ithaca, and OCM BOCES in Cortland – and the Lighthouse and Possibilities programs which are limited to the TST BOCES region. Both sites offer short to long term individualized support for elementary, middle school, and high school students with varying levels of mental health and behavioral needs.

Turning Point:

Turning Point at TST, also known as the Day Treatment program, employs ten counselors that support elementary, middle school, and high school classrooms and deals mostly with learning challenges from mental health struggles and behavior management. A smaller but similar sister program operates at OCM BOCES as well. Turning Point offers a wide variety of behavioral support including crisis intervention, case management, education, medication management, and therapy. While BOCES provides these students with an education, Racker’s Day Treatment staff unites the mental health and behavioral services that are unable to be provided elsewhere. Also, Dr. Dibble, a general and adolescent psychiatrist, and a nurse practitioner, Melanie Novick, who sees high school students, are present several days a week. The Turning Point program welcomes students with significant behavioral issues referred to Racker by their home school districts. All students in the Turning Point program have IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) as part of a broader special education program.


The goal of Turning Point is to offer support so that students can reintegrate back into their home schools. However, Day Treatment Program Director Debbie Bray says she sees students staying longer than intended because they end up settling in, making friends, and becoming a part of the overall school culture. Often, this longer-term stay in Turning Point is because students’ home schools are not equipped to support certain aspects of their behavioral challenges, even if they have successfully completed the Turning Point program. Racker counselors are in daily communication with and support these students one-on-one in the classroom, navigate crisis situations and provide group counseling – key elements that home schools generally cannot accommodate.


Debbie says, “It’s not your average person that chooses to work here. You have to have a passion for it. I think, for me, the best part of the work is the longevity of the kids that they have here, and the ability to see growth over time, because you may not see it day to day. Very rarely do

you see it day to day, but if you start with the kindergarteners and then they’re in 10th grade? It’s a whole different thing!”


Another important offering within Racker’s Counseling for School Success is the Lighthouse program. Unlike Turning Point/Day Treatment, Lighthouse is a short-term 6 weeklong respite program designed to assist students in 7th to 12th grade who are on the verge of or are at risk for developing more severe behavioral problems. The Lighthouse program follows an 8-1-1 classroom model – within the class there is a BOCES teacher and assistant, as well as a full-time Racker social worker and coordinator. A key element of the Lighthouse program is that it is individually tailored to each student and supports a healthy transitionary period for the students to come into the program.

Lighthouse is unique in that it is individualized and considered a therapeutic service, but not a treatment or diagnostic program. This program is not all encompassing in that it does not take on certain physical behaviors, such as hitting, biting, and kicking. Lighthouse and Possibilities Program Director Cathryn Sellers says, “A lot of times students are coming from a residential placement or from the hospital after a suicide attempt, or something similar to that. There’s a lot of high anxiety, depression, eating disorders, suicidal ideation, and trauma of some sort that’s happened to those students, and they’re trying to return to their home schools.” She also said more recently that they have seen an increased number of students who are school-avoidant and those who are just not going to school at all.

Students are expected to work independently within a tutoring framework. There is no separate curriculum provided by BOCES, all their work comes from their home districts. Cathryn states, “Our teacher coordinates all the work that comes from the home school for every kid that comes in. So, she’s talking to every single teacher in every single subject. Sometimes the school sends nothing, sometimes the school sends everything that they’ve missed for the last six months.”

Part of the specialty of Lighthouse is coordinating support for students who may be working on AP classes or getting ready to graduate, as well as younger students in 7th and 8th grade who may be less focused. Racker’s Lighthouse staff are mindful of the differences in these age ranges and take care to match up class time to maximize support for each student. Cathryn states that last year they had the most referrals of kids “…without motivation, who don’t see the point of school and who have incredible amounts of suicidal ideation.”

Unlike the Turning Point program, Lighthouse is entirely voluntary on the student’s part following their referral. Every student is told when they come in, “You don’t have to come here if you don’t want to.” The weirdest part, Cathryn and her team often think is, “’These kids are never going to come on their own,’ and they always come. It’s an interesting concept when you give the kid the choice on if they want to come or not; They tend to always choose to come.”


While Turning Point provides specialized education and Lighthouse provides respite, Racker’s Possibilities program is as hands-on as you can get. This program consists of up to five social workers, and an experienced teacher who collaborates with the schools and students in their home environments. Possibilities receives very specific referrals. This may include supporting students and their families with everything from meeting their basic needs, homelessness, food insecurities, and finding health insurance to working with classroom teachers, the school and the district on whatever’s happening in that child or family’s life. The specific referrals are sometimes due to behavior challenges that the school cannot accommodate; though it sometimes means the school is facing an issue that requires support on a larger scale.

Students typically enter the Possibilities program following a combined referral from the school and the parent. “Often parents are frustrated, saying the school isn’t doing everything they can. ‘We don’t believe them,’ that kind of thing,” says Lighthouse and Possibilities Program Director Cathryn Sellers, “So, we get a bird’s eye view – we go into the school and do observations even if the school thinks it’s all at home, and then we also visit the home and figure out what’s going on there. And generally, it’s a combination of both. Possibilities is about helping the students go back and become more successful at school.”

Like all Racker programs, Possibilities takes on a strengths-based perspectives approach. The goal is to find what’s working and build on that, and part of that success means meeting those basic needs and making connections. This program tends to do a lot of community referrals and outreach and that means Possibilities partners with many local programs to get students the totality of support they need.

Possibilities is intended to be three or four months of more intensive work than might be found in other programs or in a normal case management situation. The Possibilities team is trained to respond and adequately support students and families in many crisis situations. They also teach others how to support students during these hard moments, like when a suicide occurs. Cathryn says Possibilities’ staff work with students and families on a daily basis, compared to other programs or agencies that might only meet students once a week or once a month. They are well equipped to help students, provide support to adults, and give them a plan of action for dealing with hard subjects.

COVID-19’s Effects on Education:

There are many lingering behavioral challenges attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, namely school avoidance. The Possibilities team is researching and adopting different methodologies to alleviate this challenge and support students, their home schools, and their families. The team is always developing strategies to support growth and success, no matter how the challenge manifests. Possibilities staff are determined to support students who need it most – whether it means a social worker shows up to a student’s house in the morning and watches what’s going on or accompanying a student from school to home at the end of the day.

Attendance has been a big issue since the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020. Students continue to struggle with the return to in-person schooling and navigating social situations. Devices like phones, tablets and computers have mostly served to exacerbate the problem. All the Counseling for School Success programs had to adopt restrictions on personal technology in the classroom.

The directors of these programs, Debbie Bray and Cathryn Sellers, agree that they’ve seen a noticeable decline or regression in certain skills, social behavior and development as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic – whether it’s from isolation or outlying health issues caused by Long-COVID (conditions caused by or in-part from the contraction of the disease). The pandemic has had a long-lasting impact on things like developing self-discipline, routine, making connections, as well as navigating friendships and groups, all while working through their schoolwork:

I think that the elementary kids that are in middle school and missed that growth area, they’re really struggling as seventh and eighth graders now. I think they’ve been isolated. They’re not used to being in a room with 20 children. They’re not used to playing. The things that I have seen in regular schools? They’re not equipped to handle any of it; they don’t have a whole team of people in the hallway waiting to help and support like we do. They’re trying to get by every day, and they have kids tossing brooms, throwing things, clearing spaces, hitting, biting and running away. The number of kid’s referrals that we get from kids literally just running out of the building, being chased down the street is unbelievable. (Catherine Sellers)

It isn’t just happening with the younger students either: program staff are noticing 11th and 12th graders who’ve become increasingly avoidant, having a fear of not graduating but still choosing not to come to school or do the work. While there’s no concrete solution, alternative schooling and support programs like Racker’s Counseling for School Success programs at BOCES are pioneering structures to get to the heart of the problem and solve students’ lack of attendance.

Rewards and Successes:

Despite challenges like the of lack of behavioral resources in home schools and the lingering effects of COVID-19, Debbie Bray and Cathryn Sellers say that the most rewarding part of their work in Counseling for School Success is seeing the immense amount of growth that can happen over time for students.

Sometimes these successes look different than traditionally expected, “Anything that happens – that’s even remotely positive or different – everybody’s celebrating it! It’s stuff that other people probably didn’t even notice.” Debbie explains that when circumstances have been hard for most of a child’s life, and suddenly things start getting better, that can be very emotional and destabilizing for them. Sometimes the biggest victories are the day-to-day small wins.

Cathryn also sees major milestones in the Lighthouse program, “I think the majority of kids actually do really well while they’re with us because they chose to be here. They’re doing the work. They show up.” At the conclusion of each students’ term in the Lighthouse program, Cathryn has made a point to do a special little ceremony with all the students, “Every student in the room shares two appreciations about the people that are leaving and one wish for them going

forward. That ceremony is one of the little shining moments where you hear the impact that one student has on another student.”

Regarding the Possibilities program, Cathryn says she believes that they have an amazing reputation in the community for supporting students and their families in ways they’re not supported elsewhere. From this comes the intensity and kindness that fosters the kind of academic breakthroughs that make change happen.

One thing is certain, none of these breakthroughs would be possible without the collaborative staff who work with the kids directly and pour their energy, creativity, and optimism into their work. “One of the amazing things is there’s always at least one champion for each of our kids. And sometimes it’s their counselor, and sometimes it’s somebody else they meet along the way.” Through Counseling for School Success, the students find that they belong. It’s important for students to figure out that there are people that care and who are willing to create a space for them in ways that typical public schooling cannot, “Our kids know they belong here. They know they belong here, and they want to stay.” Even in Lighthouse where some of the most challenging situations happen, every child who comes in walks away feeling like they belong. Through small steps to growth, every student who enters Racker’s Counseling for School Success program can feel confident that they are not alone, that the staff are committed to their victories and that they belong.