Before arriving at PA Distance, Mrs. Katie Mihoerck graduated with a degree in Psychology from Penn State University and moved to Virginia to work as a counselor in a traditional school district. After receiving her Master’s degree from George Mason University, and after seven years away from home, she moved back to Pennsylvania and found her place as a counselor at PA Distance.
“I always knew that I wanted to work with kids,” she said. “I spent a lot of time with my aunt as a child, who was a school psychologist, which made me think that I wanted to do that someday.”
“But, after talking with her, I realized it wasn’t right for me,” she explained. “As a school psychologist, you get to know a student well. But, once your job is fulfilled, they move on and you don’t interact with them again.”
“I wanted to do school counseling instead, so I could create those relationships and have that rapport while working with them throughout their entire schooling,” she said.
After hearing good things about PA Distance, she decided to apply for a counseling job and now, is glad she did. With almost six years at PA Distance under her belt, she admits that her favorite part is the relationships she has with each family.
“I also really love the staff,” she said. “The teachers are really passionate about what they do. The first few years here, I was really blown away by what the teachers are willing to do for their kids and to help them through things.”
“That’s not something you see from every teacher, but it is something you see from every teacher here at PA Distance.”
Not many people realize that school counselors are an important part of the educational leadership team at each and every school. They provide valuable assistance to students and help to ensure that today's students become the productive, well-adjusted adults of tomorrow.
To do this, Mrs. Mihoerck, and the other counselors at PA Distance, go into virtual homerooms at least once a month where they teach their lessons using the American School Counseling Association’s (ASCA) national model.
Using this model, PA Distance counselors talk about academic achievement, career development, and social/emotional development to students in each homeroom.
In addition, when each teacher incorporates PA Distance’s Career Education and Work Program lessons into their curriculum, Mrs. Mihoerck and the other counselors visit the class so they can get to know each student and work with them even more.
“It’s a good way to get insights into what aspirations each student has for after they graduate high school,” she said.
As a school counselor, Mrs. Mihoerck does more than hand out college applications and make schedule changes for students. She frequently G-chats hundreds of kids a week and holds one-on-one sessions to talk about some of their issues - both past and present.
Some topics Mrs. Mihoerck might cover in one-on-one counseling sessions include working through a loss in their life, a break up, changes within their family, feelings of sadness or depression, and how to stay motivated academically.
“We utilize Google Hangouts where I can see the student on camera and they can see me,” she said. “A cyber setting allows the students to be more open, from what I’ve seen.”
“The kids are more comfortable sharing things with me virtually than students had at my previous school,” she added.
Students also go to Mrs. Mihoerck to ask about applying for college scholarships and options available for them after high school.
“I try to let them see the human side of me,” she explained, when referring to her counseling sessions and homeroom lessons. “If you ever come into one of my class sessions, you will probably see a lot of pictures of my cats,” she said with a laugh.
Historically, Mrs. Mihoerck has been a counselor for 7th and 8th graders but has expanded her work with students in grades 6-12, too.
“Some of the kids that I have now, I have also had in middle school, which is really cool,” she said.
PA Distance has organized the High School counseling department so that each counselor is assigned to a student, and stays with that student, throughout their entire high school experience.
“Now, I get to see each student through their graduation from PA Distance, which is really exciting,” she said cheerfully.
Mrs. Mihoerck, and the other counselors, also host special groups throughout the school year.
At the beginning of each year, they send out an interest survey to each student in order to accurately gauge the needs. Using this, they can identify kids who are going through some of the same types of issues place them in a Google Hangout group together where they can talk through their thoughts and feelings.
Mrs. Mihoerck is also the staff sponsor for PA Distance’s Student Leadership Club, which consists of around 15 kids, and meets after school on Wednesdays from 3:30 - 4:30 pm.
A new initiative that Student Leadership has spearheaded is creating a “Middle School Meet-Up” and “High School Hangout” where students attend a virtual classroom together, during lunch, so that they can socialize while they eat.
They also coordinate a program called Book Buddies where middle/high school students are paired up with classrooms in grades K-6 and read them books in their classes.
Student Leadership is also responsible for planning the PSSA and Keystone testing virtual Pep Rallies in April and May, which are open to all students.
“Last year, for elementary/middle school students, we played a game where we reviewed content relevant to the PSSA’s,” she said. “And, for our Keystone Pep Rally, we had Student Leadership ask students questions similar to Jeopardy where they could win prizes.”
PA Distance teachers also get together to create fun videos to motivate students prior to the long testing weeks.
As an active Member of the Allegheny County School Counselor Association and the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association, Mrs. Mihoerck has attended many professional development opportunities. She would then take what she learned and adapt it to her counseling work in a cyber school setting.
Building off of this, in 2019, she organized a Student Engagement Symposium, with the help of administrators, for charter school teachers and staff across the state. Although successful, she was still missing much-needed engagement and collaboration with other cyber school counselors across the state.
“It was awesome but not geared enough towards counselors in cyber charter schools,” she explained.
To bridge the gap, Mrs. Mihoerck organized a Cyber School Counselor Symposium with her PDLCS team, and invited all of the counselors from cyber schools throughout Pennsylvania.
This year will be PA Distance's second year organizing the Cyber School Counselor Symposium, complete with a keynote speaker.
Along with the other counselors at PA Distance, Mrs. Mihoerck looks forward to another successful Symposium and hopes that it keeps growing each year.
This year, around 100 counselors will be attending the Symposium which is scheduled on March 11, 2020 at Commonwealth Charter Academy in Harrisburg, PA.
“We hope to someday create a National Cyber School Counseling Association because there’s nothing like that out there,” she explained.