The Faces Behind the Numbers


By Alex Estroff

To the state of Georgia and his superiors, Jim Synan is a behavior specialist for two Clarke County high schools, tasked with implementing the new State Systemic Improvement Plan. To the eight to ten students Synan meets with every day, he is a trustworthy friend that always leaves his door open. To Synan himself, he is just a school counselor helping students actualize success.

Synan is a rather short and stocky man who can be described as anything but intimidating. Sitting behind his desk square in the middle of his seemingly oversized office, Synan works with students at Clarke Central and Cedar Shoals high schools that are on the cusp of not graduating. “The other 25 percent,” as Heidi Hill, director of special education for Clarke County, calls them, is where Synan dedicates all of his time as a counselor. For Synan, this 25 percent, referring to those Clarke County students who do not make it to graduation day, represents more than just a statistic.

“The biggest thing that would make me happy,” Synan said, “would be to see kids that I’ve worked with that are successful.”

In speaking to both Hill and Synan, an apparent disparity existed in each one’s description of Synan’s position. While Hill’s account of his job included “looking at graduation rate” and “pulling data,” Synan’s did not allude to the numbers so much as it emphasized “one-on-one” relationships.

To gain a better understanding of how he goes about his job, one must look to Synan’s past. His entire life has revolved around two central tenets—education and religion. With two educators for parents, and a family full of pastors and bishops, Synan learned from a young age both the value of a good education as well as that of each person. He carries this blend of ideals in his work.

“I can’t separate the two,” Synan said, referring to his faith and his career, “it’s part of who I am.”

While he will not openly demonstrate his Christian faith, Synan employs it in his counseling. Sometimes he will even paraphrase bible verses when offering advice to kids without telling them its source. His faith also serves the crucial purpose of keeping his spirits up when he becomes discouraged, which, unfortunately, can be quite common in this line of work in Clarke County.

In many jobs, if you fail you will always have tomorrow to make up for it. As a school counselor for the one of the most impoverished counties in the state, Synan is not afforded such a luxury. If he fails and a student does not graduate, it is far more likely for that student to become incarcerated or to live the rest of his or her life earning a low income, as far too much of Clarke County already does.

Yet Synan tries not to think that far into the future. Instead, he focuses on his approach to helping these kids right now. Specifically, he is most attentive to his ability to develop trust between him and his students.

This can be difficult in Clarke County because there are students that, as he said, “have confided in people before and have been let down,” and “have never really trusted an adult.”

When confronted with such a student, Dr. Bethany Hamilton-Jones, a clinical assistant professor in the University of Georgia’s College of Education, contends that, from an academic perspective, it is absolutely necessary that the counselor, “be skilled in building relationships,” and abide by proven methods that are supported by research. Synan meets both those criteria, as he strives to always stick to the proven Person-Centered Approach, developed by famed psychologist Carl Rogers, and also possesses a unique ability to connect with anyone—an ability that I was able to sense only a short time after meeting him.

Perhaps it is Synan’s strong foundation in education and faith that allows him to see the value of each individual student as a person, not a statistic. Or perhaps it is the fact that the stakes for his job are simply too high to neglect the fact that each student, if they do not graduate will be at an extraordinary disadvantage in society. Either way, it is clear that Synan’s personal connection with each of his students does not allow him to be blind to the faces behind the numbers.

Synan knows that in order for his students to succeed, they must know that he does not see his job as crunching numbers. They must know that, “my job is to see you graduate,” and “I’m not going away.”


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