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Magic formula

Queens guidance counselor uses full bag of tricks to make connections with students
New York Teacher

Maria Bastone

Hillcrest HS guidance counselor Habeeb Hussaini consults with special education teacher Tonya Wills. 

When guidance counselor Habeeb Hussaini meets his students for the first time, he shows them a magic trick. Then he negotiates a deal: If they will commit to three sessions with him, he’ll teach them how to do the trick themselves.

Most take him up on his offer. And after three sessions, they typically keep coming back. For Hussaini — one of 11 guidance counselors at Hillcrest HS in Jamaica — it’s just one of the hundreds of strategies he uses to serve nearly 200 students, most of whom have special needs.

“It’s all about building rapport and getting them to trust me,” says Hussaini. “I just need to make that connection with students.”

In a large high school like Hillcrest, which serves more than 3,000 students, making that connection is a crucial first step in supporting students who are dealing with myriad issues.

“They may be dealing with gang-related issues or with their socioeconomic status. Add learning and social disabilities to that and you have a formula for failure,” says Hussaini.

Hussaini and the city’s other 2,900 guidance counselors are hopeful that their profession will receive new support and acknowledgment under Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who created a new DOE Office of Guidance and School Counseling.

When Hussaini first took on the role of guidance counselor six years ago, only 40 percent of the students assigned to him were coming to their mandated counseling sessions. Some students were reluctant to be seen in counseling; others were chronically absent from school altogether.

Maria Bastone

Hussaini meets with a guidance counselor intern.

Hussaini, who graduated from Hillcrest himself, concentrated on partnering with his colleagues to provide engaging opportunities for these students in the form of sports teams, clubs and after-school activities. He also worked to provide adequate space for students, leaving the confines of his tiny, cramped office for any available space where he could spread out. As his students’ attendance rose to 80 percent, his success was rewarded with a larger office.

On a recent Thursday morning in Hussaini’s office, beneath a backdrop of bulletin boards decorated with New York Mets team paraphernalia and pictures of Hussaini’s family, a group of seven students could be found playing chess, Connect-4, tic-tac-toe and Othello.

“It might look like just a bunch of kids hanging out, but it’s so much more than that,” says Natalie Hiller, another guidance counselor at Hillcrest. “They’re learning interpersonal skills and communication skills. We’re modeling behavior to them.”

As the students played, Hussaini abruptly directed them to reset their games and switch partners, explaining that a change in environment forces students to shift their concentration.

When the games concluded, Hussaini engaged the students in a discussion about the activity. “When you were playing, you were reading your opponents and making choices,” he said, pointing out that students make hundreds of decisions in the course of a day without even realizing it. “If we raise our awareness about the decisions we’re making, we can influence the outcome.”

When he’s not in session, Hussaini has an open-door policy for students, who drop in throughout the day to inquire about school programs, leaf through GED brochures or just hang out and do work. As students drift in and out, Hussaini answers phone calls about students’ IEPs, counsels a Hunter College intern who is training to become a school counselor and periodically flags down passing students in the hallway to chat.

Maria Bastone

Playing board games in Hussaini’s office helps students develop interpersonal and communication skills.

“Part of my job is just being visible,” Hussaini notes. “I know where my students belong. And if they’re not where they belong, I will go looking for them.”

At Hillcrest, students are divided into nine small learning communities, each with its own guidance counselor who provides traditional academic counseling, programming and scheduling. Hussaini and Hiller — who work closely with the school’s two social workers, psychologist and substance abuse counselor — are able to focus on students with special needs.

Although he has 116 students on his official roster, Hussaini actually provides services to nearly 200 “at-risk” students — some of whom are recruited by friends.

“My students will bring me other kids and say, ‘Mr. Hussaini, this kid needs to be with us,’” Hussaini says.

Like his colleagues — some of whom have caseloads of more than 300 students — Hussaini finds it challenging to give his students the individual attention they need.

“How do I set them up for counseling and find the time to do IEPs?” he says. “The hardest part is being available for everyone.”

Hussaini considers himself fortunate to follow his students throughout their four years in high school.

“We want them to have every support,” Hussaini says. “But the long-term goal is to get them to advocate for themselves.”