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Top Counselor in America Opens Up Careers for At-Risk Kids

Randy McPherson is the only counselor in his high school of 700 students. While his huge caseload is not that unusual for school counselors these days, what McPherson has done at Trezevant Career and Technology Center in inner-city Memphis to help prepare at-risk kids for the future is being recognized as quite remarkable.

McPherson, who is being honored today as School Counselor of the Year by the American School Counselor Association, came to counseling as a second career 15 years ago, after working in higher education administration and as an executive recruiter.

Randy McPherson, 2011 School Counselor of the YearHe was asked to start an alternative program at Trezevant for students who had been expelled, and his positive intervention approach became a model for the country. McPherson then began to work on transforming career and technology training at the school.

"The program looked like it did in 1976. It was ineffective and poor performing," says McPherson. After a year of review and researching the Memphis job market, the school began to eliminate programs without a clear path to high-skill, high-demand jobs. Gone were watch repair, shoe repair, and upholstery training.

The programs were replaced with training in health sciences, banking, and computer technology, among others. McPherson, who received his Ed.D. in education leadership from the University of Memphis, worked with the business community and wrote grants to provide students with real-world career experience.

He helped establish the Summer Health Science Academy, where rising ninth-graders can spend seven hours a day for 22 days being immersed in the medical field. Medical professionals come into the classroom, and McPherson takes students on tours or hospitals.

"They really get a chance to decide if they are ready for the medical field," McPherson says. "The kids even get to hold a brain." If they refuse, it can be telling of their tolerance for the profession, he adds.

"They are getting a rare opportunity they might never get otherwise before going to college," he says.

Trezevant also runs a chartered savings bank as part of its Banking and Finance Academy. In this low-income neighborhood, reliance on check-cashing services is common, so the bank offers students a chance to learn about handling money wisely. As part of their training, Trezevant students go into the middle and elementary schools to teach financial literacy to younger students.

Upgrading the curriculum, as well as making students feel welcome and safe by greeting them by name as they enter the school, has changed the culture at the school, McPherson says.

"We don't have fights, drugs or weapons. It's a place where students can let their guard down," he says.

More of the students are motivated for careers, and more are going on to college now, McPherson says. "I don't recommend students go directly into the job market. If you work right out of high school, it's a job," he says. "If you get some training—from a technical school, apprenticeship, or college—then you are going to have a career."

To get new students thinking ahead, McPherson asks them to picture themselves in August after high school graduation walking into a building. "'What does it say on the building?' I ask them. I want them to start visualizing the things they would like to do for a career and understand what they need to do to get there," he says.

McPherson sees the biggest challenge for counselors and educators today as being responsible not only for the academics, but also to teach kids social and emotional behavior.

"Counselors have to be leaders in the school to provide a safety net," he says. "And collaborate with teachers and administrators and the community to understand what is going on and make sure you are catching it all."

McPherson and nine other finalists for the School Counselor of the Year honor were expected—weather permitting—in Washington today for an awards ceremony, to meet congressional representatives, and to attend a briefing on the Hill. National School Counseling Week follows, Feb 7-11.

The other finalists for the 2011 School Counselor of the Year were: Sandy Austin, Green Mountain High School, Lakewood, Colo.; Linda Brannan, Cary High School, Cary, N.C.; Brent Burnham, Midway Elementary School, Midway, Utah; Teshaunda Hannor-Walker, Northside Elementary School, Albany, Ga.; Michelle Nichol James, General Smallwood Middle School, Indian Head, Md.; Meri Kock, Hillsboro High School, Nashville, Tenn.; Terry Ann L. Malterre, Roosevelt High School, Honolulu, Hawaii; Christa Mussi, Dobson High School and Washington Elementary School, Mesa, Ariz.; and Anthony Pearson, Sky View Elementary School, Mableton, Ga.

Photo credit: Hill Signature Portraits

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