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“Look at it more as an opportunity for children to make better social connections and be able to talk about their feelings."

– Catie Cook Dennehy

LOREN BENOIT, Missoulian

There’s no monetary compensation that rivals the best part of Catie Cook Dennehy’s job.

“The reward would be seeing kids smile,” Hellgate Elementary School’s early grade counselor says.

“A lot of times, I’m working with kids who are having behavior challenges or things happening at home, and it’s very difficult for them to focus on school. So the reward basically is to see them feel good about themselves.”

Dedication to her ever-evolving craft goes beyond the group and one-on-one sessions she has with the little ones, grades K-2, in Montana’s largest elementary school.

A year ago, Dennehy was elected by peers around the state as president of the Montana School Counselors Association. She’ll represent Montana at the national school counselors convention in Phoenix this summer.

That job takes up a lot of administration time, emails and phone calls and working with school boards if, say, an ethics problem arises.

But Dennehy's dedication to students at Hellgate and elsewhere is reflected in a current hot-button issue. Some school districts take advantage of a variance allowed in state law to hire counselors who don’t have counseling certification.

“We’re trying to make sure that around the state they’re getting the right people into those jobs,” she said.

“To say Catie goes the extra mile would be an understatement,” says Julie McCarthy-McLaverty, principal of the primary grades building at Hellgate. “She works really hard to benefit the kids. She’s always, always an advocate of the kids.”

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Dennehy, who moved to Missoula from Iowa at age 2, graduated from Washington Middle and Sentinel High schools. She has a degree in psychology from the University of Montana and a master's degree in school counseling from Montana State University.

She’s married to Sean Dennehy, an assistant contractor in Missoula.

Dennehy, 37, is completing her 11th year in the profession, four as counselor and junior high Spanish teacher at Lolo Elementary and the rest at Hellgate.

Her father, Tom Cook, is former chairman of the University of Montana's music department. Her mother, Janie, taught fourth grade in Iowa before the family moved to Missoula in 1979. Janie nominated her daughter for the Missoulian’s 20 Under 40 recognition.

A school counselor's days are divided into three roles: education in social and classroom skills; monitoring attendance, contacting parents and developing behavior modification plans when the need arises; and actual counseling, both in groups and – Dennehy’s favorite – one on one.

Over the last 10 years, she’s witnessed a disturbing trend in even the youngest students.

“We worry about the fact that kids come in with, I guess you’d say, less manners,” she said. “We worry that a lot of times they’re coming in not knowing to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ and how to treat friends.”

Basic social skills are a focus in the first years. But going to see the school counselor is no longer a stigma of bad behavior.

If she had one message for parents, Dennehy said, it would be to not fear school counselors.

“When I was a kid, I think people went to the counselor’s office if they needed their schedule changed or if they were in really big trouble,” she said. “It’s changed as a profession. We’re supposed to be open door. All children are supposed to have access to us.”

Don’t think, she said, that because your child is seeing the school counselor that there’s something wrong with him or her.

“Look at it more as an opportunity for children to make better social connections and be able to talk about their feelings,” Dennehy said. “They’re young enough so that will help them down the line.”

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