School counselors not only advocate for students and help them prepare for the future, they also are an important link between parents and school, said Katherine Pastor, school counselor at Flagstaff High School who recently was named the 2016 School Counselor of the Year by the American School Counselor Association.
“School counselors are an essential piece to the education system,” Pastor said. “We are the glue that holds everything together.”
Pastor heard she had been named School Counselor of the Year after her Principal Tony Cullen asked her to respond to a crisis, and learned when she arrived that she’d received the national honor, according to the Arizona Daily Sun.
Through Pastor’s leadership, the school hosts the Northern Arizona College night “where students from various communities are able to have access to over a 120 colleges and technical schools that would not normally travel to communities on the reservation such as Tuba City or smaller rural towns such as Winslow, Holbrook, or Williams,” Cullen said.
“Katherine has also incorporated a financial aid night where a number of financial aid representatives come to FHS in the evening to speak with parents about the process and answering questions to help alleviate some of the stress,” Cullen said. “Additionally every senior at FHS fills out a FAFSA form to ensure that even if they are not planning on going to college, that door is never shut due to a missed deadline.”
Pastor is also the student government sponsor and spends one a period a day in the classroom helping the students organize and development positive interactions within the student population to make the school an effective learning environment, Cullen said.
“What is particularly noteworthy to me about Kat is her impact on the community,” said Melissa Beverly, a counselor at Cactus Shadows High School and 2014 ASCA School Counselor of the Year Finalist. “She is really an important part of Flagstaff and makes a noticeable difference in the lives of the students and families there.”
School counselors meet the needs of students through academic, career and social/emotional planning as well as support classroom instruction, Pastor said.
“School counseling is an extremely rewarding career,” Pastor said. “I am able to positively affect the lives of the students in my school building each day in several different aspects.”
Pastor uses the national standards as a model, has classroom time with students on a frequent, regular basis to provide college information and other kinds of academic assistance and has served as the counseling department chair for several years, said Barbara Hickman, superintendent of Flagstaff Unified School District.
“She has worked hard to develop a way for our counselors to proactively approach situations with students as a way to prevent small things from growing to crisis situations,” Hickman said.
Pastor also serves as a mentor for student groups such as Leadership and Link Crew, helping students find a place they belong at school and learn to serve others.
“She is helpful and generous with her time and talent, always doing her best to meet the needs of her school community,” Hickman said. “Ms. Pastor does not wait to be asked, she seeks out ways in which she can make a positive difference.”
Students access to school counselors
About 44 percent of Arizona high school students do not have access to school counselors, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection.
“With all the schools have had to take on in recent years regarding standards training, standardized testing, accountability, and emotional health the counselors have taken on a bigger role in ensuring students success,” Cullen said.
At Flagstaff High School this has included proctoring AP and standardized exams, teaching courses regarding the ACT, planning and implementing students success strategies and working with students and families on financial and emotional distress.
All students should have regular access to a full-time, certified professional school counselor, said Mindy Willard, a counselor at Pendergast Elementary School District, the 2013 School Counselor of the Year and past-president of the Arizona School Counselors Association.
“School counselors are uniquely qualified to provide a comprehensive developmentally appropriate program that addresses not only the academic and career development of all students, but also their social and emotional development,” Willard said.
In Arizona, one school counselor may see up to 880 students, according to the most current data provided by the American School Counselors Association. That’s more than three times the 250 students per counselor the association recommends.
“This makes our state the worst in the nation in regards to student to counselor ratios,” Willard said.
At Flagstaff High School, a counselors case load has traditionally been about 500 students per counselor, Cullen said.
“This limits the ability for every student to be seen by their academic counselor to ensure everything from their social/emotional well-being to their need for encouragement while attempting a rigorous course schedule,” Cullen said.
Some states, like Georgia, have passed legislation capping the school counselor to student ratio at 450:1, Willard said.
“When our ratios are appropriate, school counselors are able to utilize school-wide data to make program decisions, collaborate with administration/teachers and parents, and we are able to do the most important thing when working with students – create meaningful lasting relationships with our students,” Willard said.
Smaller ratios also let school counselors focus on prevention rather than respond to situations only after they have arisen, Willard said.
“A school counselor’s time with students and families is our greatest resource,” Beverly said. “We see great needs, and it is unbelievably difficult to not have the proper resources to meet them.”
School budget pressures
During the Great Recession, Arizona public schools made tough budget choices after the Arizona Legislature cut funding. Some reduced the number of counselors, while other eliminated school counselors completely.
“Over the years, counseling has always been viewed as an academic advisor and budgets have always been quick to cut counselors who play a strategic role in student success,” Cullen said.
“In a state with school funding at the level of Arizona’s, school boards and superintendents often have to make difficult choices about what kinds of programs and services to support with available resources,” Hickman said.
A recent state-level conversation on what should be included in dollars in the classroom led to counselors and many other student and instructional support services being included.
“Any school site that has counselors would agree that the kinds of support that counselors can provide for students and families is crucial for emotional health and academic success, and that those two things go hand-in-hand,” Hickman said. “Counselors are an integral part of the ‘first line of defense’ for students in making sure that they are having outside needs met, that they feel safe and cared for, and that they have a web of support to help them grow up.”
Not every school district can fund counselling positions, though, especially if those dollars could also be used to hire teachers and maintain or lower class size, Hickman said.
“In Flagstaff Unified School District, we have been fortunate to develop a very positive relationship with our community, who takes seriously our collective responsibility towards our children,” Hickman said. “To that end, the voters of the Flagstaff area have approved two M & O overrides and one bond in the past several years.”
Those dollars let the district maintain class size, but also retain counselors and nurses, Hickman said.
“These positions help our schools address the needs of our students that may not be directly related to the classroom, but most definitely have a significant impact on the ability of children to learn,” Hickman said. “Without the additional funds provided by our community through voter approved opportunities, we would not be able to staff our support positions in the way that is best for our schools.”
Despite the challenges, Arizona’s school counselors have received national recognition for their work helping students.
Arizona has had one national semi-finalist – Julie Van Den Berg from Cave Creek – two national finalists – Melissa Beverly from Cactus Shadows High School and Christa Mussi from Dobson High School and two National School Counselors of the Year – Pastor and Willard – in the past five years.
“I cannot think of a better representative for our profession that Kat Pastor,” Willard said. “I have known her for over 7 years through our involvement with the Arizona School Counselors Association and I can honestly say she is the backbone of our organization.”
Each year, Pastor organizes “one of the best state school counselor conferences in the country,” Willard said.
“Kat understands our profession inside and out, and will be a fabulous voice for all K-12 school counselors in our country,” Willard said.
Q: Why did you become a counselor?
A: The opportunity presented itself, by being in the right place at the right time. In 2005, I attended Flagstaff High School’s Scholarship Night representing Northern Arizona University’s Financial Aid and Scholarship Office to present the NAU Scholarships.
My cousin was graduating from FHS that year and after the ceremony, introduced me to her school counselor and counseling staff. The counselors informed me they would have two positions open that summer and asked if would consider applying for one of them.
Up until that point, I had not considered ever working for the school district. I spent some time thinking about what direction I wanted my career to go and decided to put my application in. I felt the experience I had working at the university could help bridge some of the gaps from secondary to post-secondary and bring a level of expertise to the high school.
Q: What are some projects/initiatives you’ve worked on?
A: In an effort to help our students reach higher for their post-secondary goals, I proposed “College and Career Wednesdays” to administration.
Every Wednesday, all staff members wear college or career shirts to promote college/career awareness on our campus. During the broadcast of daily announcements staff members share personal stories of their college experiences, name their Alma Maters, and describe what types of jobs they had before college graduation, etc. We give our Positive Behavior Intervention Support reward tickets to students who wear college or career shirts on Wednesdays.
This past spring semester, I arranged for our Assistant Superintendent to pay for all of the district school counselors to complete the AzSCA College Access Professionals training modules. Sessions include readings, activities and online discussions and result in a pass/fail grade for 20 professional development hours per module, 80 hours total. I collaborated with our department to work with our middle school counselor at our feeder middle school. We worked as a collective team on each of the following objectives: Module I: Building a College-Going Culture for All Students; Module II: College, Career, and Academic Planning; Module III: Financial Aid and College Applications; Module IV: College and Career Advising in the Middle Grades.
For the ten years I have been at FHS, this was the first time our department worked together with our middle school counselor to develop effective action plans for each initiative we wanted to bring to our high school, middle school and parents.
Our action plans allow each of our schools to create systemic change, by promoting equality and access to all students for college and career readiness. Overall, 12 of our school counselors district-wide (K-12) completed this training, which is the highest number in our state for trained school counselors in one district.
Q: What might people not know that counselors do that they should?
A: Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. Therefore, our future depends on our students being inspired to reach higher.
We have to be part of a solution where the personal development of our students is complete, comprehensive and global. I believe this is a continual process, beginning before entering high school and continuing throughout post-secondary training.
Professional school counselors must know the whole student and recognize that development occurs inside as well as outside the classroom.
Professional school counselors have a responsibility to provide resources to aid students in maturing and becoming successful contributors of society.
We help to remove barriers and empower our students, placing them in control of their own post-secondary destination.