White House Salutes High School Counselors

White House Salutes High School Counselors
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First Lady Michelle Obama honored the 2016 School Counselor of the Year at the White House on Thursday in a program recognizing not just the winner’s achievements but the importance of school counselors across the nation.

She also pledged to host the event next year – in her final days as first lady -- as part of her Reach Higher Initiative.

“We know our teachers are great,” Obama said. “We reward them, we celebrate them, but sometimes we miss those other players in the background who have so much to do and so much control over the success of a student’s life going forward.”

This year’s winner is Katherine Pastor from Flagstaff High School in Flagstaff, Ariz. Pastor created a FAFSA Completion Day – intended to help families fill out the federal financial aid request form -- and a College Application Completion Day at her school in addition to helping build a new Career and Counseling Center.

“Our nation must recognize that knowledge is power and absolve ourselves of any preconceived assumptions that place limits on any student,” Pastor said. “To preserve our nation’s liberties, post-secondary education needs to be accessible to all.”

Pastor also coordinated with counselors throughout Arizona to hold college fairs over the course of one week to better accommodate students living in remote areas. She also asked her school district to pay for counselors to attend the comprehensive college assessment training. Counselors from her district now make up half of all those who have completed this training. Her school has had a 13 percent increase in college acceptance rates in the last seven years and a 50 percent increase in the number of colleges that visit the campus, the first lady noted.

Pastor’s accomplishments are all the more remarkable in light of a very difficult medical challenge she faced. In 2013 doctors diagnosed a tumor in her brain, which required surgery. Pastor worked to regain her ability to walk and talk -- while never forgetting her commitment to students, Obama said.

The first lady noted the important role all school counselors have in students’ lives, and how difficult that role is given that the average student-to-teacher ratio of 471-to-1. Some companies have agreed to help alleviate this imbalance. Merck will invest $1 million to expand the Counselors for Computing initiative, which will help 1,400 school counselors advise half a million students interested in the computer science field, she said. Google is also creating virtual 3D tours of colleges, so students who cannot afford in-person visits can still see the campuses. Additionally, this year’s federal budget includes $15 million toward helping underprivileged students fill out FAFSA forms and college applications.  

 “All of this is really about creating a movement to support our school counselors for years or even generations to come,” Obama said.

Pastor called upon everyone to ensure that counselors are readily accessible to students all over the nation.

“We do not determine a child’s fate,” she said. “We determine their destiny.”

Other finalists for School Counselor of the Year were Kim Reykdal from Olympia High School, Olympia, Wash; Kris M. Owen, Ridgeview STEM Junior High School, Pickerington, Ohio; Durenda Johnson Ward, Centennial Campus Magnet Middle School, Raleigh, N.C.; Samantha Vidal, Creekside Elementary School, Franklin, Ind.; and Robert Lundien, Staley High School, Kansas City, Mo.

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