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Excellence in School Counseling Advocacy

31 May
School counselor with student

In an article for the New Jersey School Counselor Association titled, “The Difference You Make,” Brian Mathieson, Ed.D., wrote, “School counselors are making a difference with students every day. You are the voice for students who need additional social/emotional support. You are promoting career/college readiness for all students. You are teaching lessons to ensure that all students have the knowledge and skills they’ll need to be successful in high school and beyond.”1

As this country’s leading professional organization for school counselors, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) established the School Counselor of the Year award, which honors “professionals who devote their careers to advocating for the nation’s students and addressing their academic, career and social/emotional development.”2

This post will highlight the accomplishments of several individuals recently recognized by the ASCA for their excellence in school counseling advocacy.

Building a More Just Society Through Education

Brian Coleman, 2019 ASCA School Counselor of the Year
William Jones College Preparatory High School
Chicago, IL

Brian Coleman is the first African-American individual to be recognized as ASCA School Counselor of the Year.3 As the faculty sponsor to JonesPride, his school’s LGBTQA+ student organization, Coleman became aware of students’ frustration about the lack of resources, relationship support and inclusive language for gender and sexual minorities in the freshman sexual health curriculum. In response, he collaborated with the Student Government Association to spearhead a revised sexual health education program for 377 sophomore students.4

His holistic approach to school counseling includes advocating for expanded education and knowledge for students and school staff alike. At the time of his ASCA honor, vice principal Therese Plunkett noted that, in addition to postsecondary planning and academic planning, Coleman is strongly committed to ensuring that the school provides interdisciplinary social/emotional learning supports for all students. Coleman’s former colleague, LaToya Hudson-Spells, described him as, “truly talented and deeply committed to building a more just society through education.” 4

Deciding Based on What is Best for Students

Laura Ross, 2020 ASCA School Counselor of the Year
Five Forks Middle School
Lawrenceville, GA

Before Laura Ross became a school counselor, her work as a counselor at a men’s correctional facility fueled her passion for restorative justice. During the 2018-19 school year, she noticed male African-American and Latino students made up 49% of all discipline referrals at Five Forks. “With referrals come consequences,” she said, “such as in- and out-of-school suspension, disconnecting students from direct instruction.”5

She set out to decrease referrals by 15% and, with her department, developed a multi-tiered intervention plan for the whole school. They paired schoolwide programs on peer relations and positive behavior incentives with targeted interventions that included strengths-based small-group sessions and weekly one-on-one advocacy and support coaching. Staff members received professional development on implicit bias, including weekly emails to reinforce ideas for teachers to cultivate culturally responsive connections to students. By the end of the academic year, discipline referrals for African American and Latino males had decreased by 32%.5

Ross also works to help create what colleague Jennifer Chapman describes as a “connectedness culture.” As the founding sponsor of the school’s first GayStraight Alliance, Ross is leading an effort to ensure Five Forks is supportive and responsive to LGBTQ students. Further, she serves as a cadre trainer for the Dove Self-Esteem Project, facilitating presentations about teen body confidence to educators, and she is the school district's Counseling Steering Committee middle school chair. 5

In praising her, Christine Douthart, principal of Five Forks Middle School, said, “When we come together to think about our mission as a school, Laura always asks, ‘Are we making decisions for adults, or are we making decisions based on what is best for our students?’”5

Reaching the Most Traumatized Students

Olivia Carter, 2021 ASCA School Counselor of the Year
Jefferson Elementary School
Cape Girardeau, MO

Olivia Carter is now a counselor at Terry W. Kitchen Central Junior High in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. When she was named the ASCA School Counselor of the Year in 2021, she provided counseling services to her suburban elementary school’s 304 students, grades K-4, 100% of whom received free or reduced lunch.6

Carter taught teachers about trauma and trauma responses, sparking their interest in further training: in anti-biased and antiracist teaching, restorative practices and self-regulation. She also created Trauma-Informed Tuesdays, a newsletter focused on teacher wellness and best practices related to building resilience. In addition, she increased emphasis on career exploration. When a community partner reached out about designing a project around financial literacy and giving back to the community, she saw it as an opportunity. Through this project, fourth-grade students complete an interest inventory and have an immersive experience with someone in their chosen field, culminating in a career fair for all students.6

In 2021, then-assistant principal Zech Payne said, “She has single-handedly brought trauma-informed practices to our school and built a team of educators … that has helped transform our school and better fit the needs of our students.” Her work earned this praise from colleague Kandee Oliver: “Olivia has a gift to reach our most traumatized students. Creating and building trust, chipping away at hurts and heartaches, inspiring and uplifting, Olivia pieces together an environment for our students that surrounds them like a comfortable old quilt.”6

Fostering a Lifelong Love of Reading

Sarah Flier, 2021 ASCA School Counselor of the Year Finalist
Willow River Elementary School
Hudson, WI

“Mrs. Flier shows all of her students that life should be a ride that you love, and you never want to get off of, so do all things that make you happy and let your light shine.”
—Adreanna Johnson, former student

Sara Flier is a school counselor working with 320 students in grades K-5. When an achievement gap was found on the state exam in English/Language Arts (ELA) for students who were economically disadvantaged, Flier collaborated with teachers, parents and her School Counseling Advisory Committee to develop her school’s Literacy Toolbox program. It collects donations to support a book club that provides a self-selected book each month to students in need. By choosing their own literature each month, students are able to build their own personal library and foster a lifelong love of reading.7

In 2019, Willow River Elementary set a goal for 65% of students meeting their ELA growth target on the Measures of Academic Progress assessment. By disaggregating the data, Flier found that students in third grade were the farthest from reaching this goal, with only 45% doing so. She focused school counseling classroom instruction on academic success while facilitating a small group to further address study skills, growth mindset, test-taking strategies and goal setting. In spring 2019, 76% of third graders reached their target goal in ELA on the assessment.7

Protecting Students and Their Rights

Alma Lopez, 2022 ASCA School Counselor of the Year
Livingston Middle School
Livingston, CA

“As a first-generation college attendee, Ms. Lopez serves as an inspiration for her students, her community and the profession.”
—Valerie Hardy, selection panel member
ASCA School Counselor of the Year

Alma Lopez is the first Latina individual to be recognized as ASCA School Counselor of the Year. Her 2,500-student district had only two school counselors when she started working there; her advocacy efforts in 2015 contributed to the district’s decision to hire three more. She was the first to approach Superintendent Andrés Zamora about expanding the district’s counseling services when the California Department of Education introduced a new funding model based on the concepts of local control. As a result, Livingston became Merced County’s first district to have full-time school counselors at all its elementary schools.8

According to Livingston Middle School Principal Jorge Arteaga, “As she plans and organizes support services, Alma always thinks of equity and access to ensure our neediest students get the support they need to be successful.”8

“She is a voice of reason,” said faculty colleague Markella Tsatsaronis, “a kind human and the protector of students and their rights.”8

Creating a Sense of Belonging

Keisha J. Larry Burns, Ed.D., 2023 ASCA School Counselor of the Year Finalist
Shadow Hills Engineering and Design Magnet Academy
Palmdale, CA

A first-generation college graduate, Dr. Keisha J. Larry Burns has said, “Creating a sense of belonging has been essential to my school counseling program. Middle school can be awkward as students navigate the terrain, experience personal growth and build relationships.”9

In response, Burns implemented two programs: Where Everybody Belongs (WEB) assigns trained eighth-grade leaders to mentor sixth-grade students. WEB leaders plan and host activities—specifically for sixth-grade students—that create a rapport and connection to the school. Through her work with WEB, Burns identified the need for a sense of community within her school. This led her to establish the Falcon Lunch Club, creating a space where all Shadow Hills students could participate, interact with each other and practice their soft skills through play. Having grown quickly from 20 to 60 students, the Lunch Club is now a schoolwide intervention in which teachers volunteer to host students in their classrooms. Students and teachers are matched with each other based on their interests (art/drawing, computer games, reading, board games, sports, and so on) and selected by using a Google Form. The act of building community aligns with the school’s motto: “Be Here! Be You! Belong!”9

Burns noted that “advocating for students as they find their voice” is the most rewarding aspect of her work as a school counselor.9

Helping and Seeing Students Achieve Their Goals

Matthew K. Shervington-Jackson, 2023 ASCA School Counselor of the Year Finalist
Susquehannock High School
Glen Rock, PA

Matthew K. Shervington-Jackson has “worked to create an atmosphere that promotes diversity, equity and inclusion.”9 During the 2021-2022 academic year, he advocated for students who wanted to establish a multicultural club. He served as the club’s advisor as members worked to create awareness of the concerns of students who are Black, indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC). He did the same for students looking to reestablish a dormant (due to COVID-19) Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club to foster inclusivity for LGBTQ+ students and their allies.9

His department also worked to establish initiatives to identify economically disadvantaged students and provide them with fee waivers for postsecondary exams. This has resulted in a 400% increase in identified students and a 250% increase in those who’ve taken the exams since 2018. For their school counseling program, he implemented numerous pre- and post-assessment efforts to do better at tracking counselor and student outcomes.9

“Advocacy is, far and away, my favorite part of the job,” Shervington-Jackson said. “More specifically, helping and seeing students achieve their goals, especially when they once felt those goals may have been unobtainable.”9

Revolutionizing Opportunities for Students

Diana Virgil, Ph.D., 2024 ASCA School Counselor of the Year
Daleville High School
Daleville, AL

Serving 346 students in grades 9-12, Dr. Diana Virgil is the 17th person and first from Alabama to be recognized as the ASCA Counselor of the Year. Many of her students aim to be the first high-school graduates in their families. When Virgil was hired in 2015, she noticed that many students weren’t participating in dual-enrollment classes due to a lack of awareness, limited college aspirations, transportation challenges and financial constraints. She promptly established a partnership with the local community college to boost student enrollment. A significant turning point came when the college received a grant to provide eligible students with free tuition and books for dual enrollment, revolutionizing the opportunities for students to earn both high school and college credit.

To address transportation challenges, Virgil worked with the college to implement online courses and enlisted teachers to teach dual-enrollment courses at the high school. Her approaches increased the number of students in dual-enrollment courses from four to more than 40 each semester. This year, the school is on the cusp of graduating its first student with a high school diploma and an associate degree in science, along with its first student with a mechatronics certification from the aviation college. As a result of Virgil’s extensive collaboration and advocacy efforts, Daleville High School now offers dual-enrollment courses in science, English and math.10

Student Lashundra Straw said that Dr. Virgil “is the heart of the school and makes the community feel complete.”10

Make the most of your chance to make a difference.

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