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A Different Place

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By Kwok-Sze Wong, Ed.D., executive director of the American School Counselor Association

Nicole Pfleger's mother is an elementary school teacher, so naturally, Nicole wanted to follow in her footsteps. Shortly before she graduated with her degree in elementary education, however, Nicole realized she wanted to reach more students than she could as a classroom teacher. Instead of looking for a teaching job after graduation, Nicole stayed in school to earn her master's degree in school counseling.

Now in her sixth year as a school counselor at Nickajack Elementary School in Smyrna, Ga., Nicole doesn't work with students in just one class, she works with every one of the almost 1,000 students in the school.

Although she lives in the same community where she grew up and works in the same school district where her mother still teaches, Nicole is in a much different place than she ever thought she'd be. Nicole is in the 21st-century world of school counseling.

School counseling as a profession began over 100 years ago in response to the industrial revolution and other social changes. Technological advances gave workers more choices than simply working on the family farm or staying in the family business. Schools began providing vocational guidance to help students sort out all the opportunities now open to them, while continuing to help improve learning so students could pursue those new opportunities. Eventually, schools also began providing mental health services to help students cope with the increasing pressures of childhood and adolescence in the 20th century.

Today, school counselors guide their students through three parallel paths that lead to the same destination: success. School counselors help their students through personal and social development to improve their academic achievement so they can prepare for successful careers and lives as contributing members of society. Rather than providing a service just to students who need them, school counselors manage comprehensive programs for every student.

At Nickajack Elementary, the foundation of academic achievement is a spirit of character education that permeates the school. The school wanted to reduce the number of disciplinary actions so teachers and students could focus on learning instead of behavior. Nicole helped implement the Rachel's Challenge Program with the goal of 5,000 random acts of kindness, which were tracked using paper links that form a chain throughout the school. The students doubled their goal by performing 10,000 acts of kindness, and disciplinary referrals decreased by 53 percent between 2007 and 2011.

The school also discovered that almost 37 percent of its economically disadvantaged students were not meeting math standards. Working with their county's Homeless Education Program, Nicole and other staff members set up a tutoring center at the homeless shelter to provide tutoring during the school year and programs during the summer. As a result, the number of economically disadvantaged students who met or exceeded math standards increased 17.5 percent from 2009 to 2011.

School counselors, like other educators, have suffered from an image problem because of misconceptions, misunderstandings and, yes, misguided counselors. It seems everyone has a story about how their "guidance" counselor told them they'd never amount to anything. We're happy those stories are dwindling, and hope today's students won't have those stories to tell about their school counselors. Nicole and thousands of school counselors like her are working hard every day to change the negative image by helping every student succeed.

For all her accomplishments, Nicole Pfleger was named the 2012 School Counselor of the Year by the American School Counselor Association. And that's a place she never dreamed she'd be.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.


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