School Counselor of the Year Helps Students Find Paths to College

By Joetta Sack-Min

School counselors bear a tremendous responsibility to guide their students to academic and career success and, along the way, nurture their emotional well being. For Katherine Pastor, school counseling is a career that allows her to help hundreds of students at at Arizona’s Flagstaff High School achieve their potential each year.

The American School Counselors Association named Ms. Pastor as the 2016 School Counselor of the Year and is celebrating National School Counseling Week from February 1-5, 2016. Ms. Pastor and other finalists were honored by First Lady Michelle Obama at a White House ceremony on January 29, which can be viewed on YouTube.

Ms. Pastor was chosen in part because of her work to launch events to help students complete college applications and federal financial aid forms, a new career and counseling service, new outreach to help students in rural areas learn about higher education opportunities, and more training for school counselors in her school district, which has resulted in more colleges visiting Flagstaff High and a 13 percent increase in college acceptances since she began the job in 2005. Ms. Pastor received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northern Arizona University and also teaches as an adjunct professor.

“I know firsthand what kind of impact you have on a child’s life,” Mrs. Obama said. “Growing up, so many of us, including me, were fortunate enough to have someone in our lives, some caring adult who decided they were going to be on our team… and for so many young people in this country, that person is you—our school counselors.”

Ms. Pastor also has a compelling personal story, having survived a brain tumor and months of rehabilitation in 2013. In her spare time she leads fundraisers for cancer research, and she also is involved in several team sports and community activities.

LFA Communications Consultant Joetta Sack-Min recently interviewed Ms. Pastor about her work at Flagstaff High School and the ever-changing and challenging job of school counselor.

LFA: Congratulations on being named Counselor of the Year! Please tell us why you chose school counseling as a career? What are some of the highs and lows of your job?

The opportunity presented itself, by being in the right place at the right time. In 2005, I attended the Flagstaff High School Scholarship Night representing Northern Arizona University 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.

School counseling is an extremely rewarding career; I am able to positively affect the lives of the students in my school building each day in several different aspects. High school is a time of transition, with that comes highs and lows. It is always exciting to see your students succeed and reach their goals. One of the best parts of this job is seeing your students come back after they have graduated and learn how they are doing out in the “real world”. Also seeing the transition, they make from their freshman year in high school to graduation. So much maturity occurs during those four years, it is rewarding to see your students grow and development into young adults.

Lows of the job mostly center around not having enough resources, such as staffing or feeling like you do not have enough time to get everything done due to high student to counselor caseloads.

LFA: Most people do not necessarily think of school counselors as teachers, but you spend time in classrooms talking about careers, academics, and social emotional wellness. Could you please tell us about some of your lessons and what you hope your high school students will take away from them?

At FHS, technology is intrinsic to our program, using it to reach all students through grade level standards.  This process guarantees that our department provide services to our entire student community, with specific standards taught at specific grade levels. 

I implemented the Freshman Experience along with the ECAP initiative, where counselors spend a total of six days with our freshmen throughout the year instructing them on transitional issues, learning styles, study habits, high school graduation and college entrance requirements, and communication skills, as well as creating a four-year plan and investigating careers.   We survey our students in each grade level to identify needs and create lessons to address those needs.  Our office purchased and implemented the Naviance program to effectively track our work product; every lesson utilizes Naviance.  We work with the English Department to verify that each student has a working email account, and we communicate with all of our students regarding college visits, PSAT, ACT/SAT testing dates, scholarship information, guest speakers, college fly-in programs, and all other notifications necessary for their success. 

Utilizing Naviance in conjunction with our school counseling lessons has allowed our students to apply what we are teaching them to their own chosen path.  Effectively, we have removed barriers and empowered our students, placing them in control of their own academic destination. 

Our counseling office works closely with the Link Leadership students in teaching lessons geared toward social/emotional development to all of our freshman year-round. Topics include, time management, bullying, effective communication, note taking and study skills. We also work to bring in guest speakers or outside organizations to deliver specific topics to our students, such has healthy relationships or goal setting in relation to thinking about your future. Our goal is to enable our students to become confident, self-directed lifelong learners.

LFA: What do you see as some of the most common issues that students are facing in 2015-16? Are you seeing more academic stress and related issues in recent years?

I feel as though our students seem to be under more stress than when I first began working at the school. I am not sure if this has something to do with the lack of coping skills or that many students seem to never have a break. So many students seem to be overcommitted to several different activities, I am not sure they have time just to be. I notice many students are glued to their phone and their various social media accounts, they seem to always be “plugged” in.

We see a higher number of families in transition, meaning not having a permanent home to live in. Bouncing from shelter to shelter, or couch to couch. The cost of living in Flagstaff is high so trying to find affordable housing can be difficult. Our counseling department has seen an increase in the number of outside counseling referrals we are making this year along with increased CPS reports and suicide assessments. This is concerning as the stress level of our young adults seems to be increasing at younger and younger ages.

Specific to post-secondary education, students and families are stressed out over the cost of attendance and how they are going to get the financial resources to pay for a college education. College costs have continued to increase each year but the amount of funding available has not. This is a major concern for our families as they figure out how they will make their child’s dream of attending college possible. Early outreach in elementary and middle school is critical to inform families so they can begin making strategic decision regarding funding a college education for their child.

LFA: Please tell us a little about the services you helped to build that help students transition to high school and exit high school. Are students particularly vulnerable during these times? How can parents, teachers, and other educators help support and prepare students to enter and graduate high school?

Fostering student leadership, we practice “shadow leadership” by assisting our Link Leaders with several activities they coordinate throughout the school year, including Freshman Orientation, the annual pancake breakfast, and the Mix It Up Lunch.  In January, I coordinate our middle school connections assembly, where the counselors and student leaders host an assembly to our feeder middle school 8th grade students. We host a freshman panel, student council acts out skits on high school life, the counselors each introduce themselves and talk about the services our department offers and the student council members teach them some cheers/chants geared toward the year they will graduate from high school.  In March, I coordinate an 8th grade visitation day, where we invite 8th graders to FHS to meet our administrators, tour our campus, visit classrooms, and connect with our student Leaders.  During this important event, we showcase all departments, allowing students to get a feel for the high school environment.  This is their introduction to the next four years of their academic and personal development. 

With our seniors we work with them to complete at least one college application in the fall semester and complete their FAFSA in the spring semester. We invite our college admissions representatives in the spring semester as well to meet with students on housing, meal plans and orientation questions so they can have a smooth transition to college.  Along with college visits we also host career visits as well so students can hear presentations from various organizations and the job opportunities available to them. This also allows students to explore different types of careers and visit with people who are currently doing that job.

With these comprehensive programs in place at all levels, we are able to provide the essential resources necessary to all students as they prepare themselves to be contributors in society. Collaboration between the student’s family and teachers is essential in the transition process. We are all on the same team, assisting children through navigating transitioning into high school and college. Parents must be a part of this process and be engaged with the services the school provides. For example, having parents utilize the Naviance program along with their student so they can be part of the planning process of their students ECAP (Education Career and Action Plan).

LFA: What are some of the biggest challenges counselors face in their jobs today? As the School Counselor of the Year, are there any specific ideas or initiatives that you will be advocating to elevate the profession?

School counselors are not mandated in most states, which means there are schools where our children are attending that do not have access to a school counselor. School counselors are also over staffed, the average number of students to a counselor in Arizona is over 800 students to one school counselor. It can be very difficult to implement a comprehensive school counseling program when you do not have the resources. It is critical that administrators and the public understand what the role of the school counselor is and how necessary they are to the education process.

Many of our elementary schools are also not staffed with a school counselor or they have one counselor who is shared at multiple schools, which means the school counselor might be at a particular school only one day a week. This is not a proactive approach and not good for our children in light of the numerous services that we provide to students on a daily basis. Education continually faces budget cuts each year, and when schools have to make staff decisions, many times school counselors are the first to be cut. This uncertainty of not knowing if you have a job year to year can be very difficult.

Communities and families need to rally and support overrides in their towns to support the important work of educators.  We need to find the opportunity in these challenges, to do what is right for children. My goal is to provide equal access for all students to a school counselor and to have school counselors be seen as an essential piece of the education system, just as teachers are in each of our school buildings. We are the foundation to the school system and we remove barriers and empower students to reach higher in their academic, career and personal journeys.  When people think of the word educator, they think teacher. My goal is to also have them think of school counselors when they hear the word educator. School counselors need to be accessible, available and visible in all school buildings across this country.

LFA: We have heard that you are involved in many sports and activities outside of school—what are some of your interests and how do you manage to balance everything?

Being involved in several different activities is important to build community partnerships and relationships, which in turn help to support the school counseling program at Flagstaff High School. I have been in the Master Chorale of Flagstaff for 14 years. I love singing and have made many friends in the group, it is also a time for me to get away from my school counseling life and do something different. I also have a group of friends that usually get together a city league volleyball team together, which is great. I am a pretty active person and enjoy team sports which allows me to get together with my friends to have a good time. We usually end up laughing a ton and winning a few games here and there!

Being a cancer survivor, I always coordinate a team to participate in the American Cancer’s Society Climb to Conquer Cancer event each August in Flagstaff. We climb the seven mile road up to the Arizona Snowbowl. This is such a great event for our community and a great way to spend the morning raising money for such an important cause.

I also serve as the Conference Director for the Arizona School Counselors Association and have been on their board for 10 years. This involvement allows me to get out in our state and collaborate with all levels of school counselors in working towards enhancing services to our students, families and communities. I believe that balance is key to a healthy and happy life, which is why you must have outside interests from your work. It is important to get away, gain some different perspectives and appreciate the time you have with your family and friends.

LFA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

School counselors are an essential piece to the education system; we are the glue that holds everything together. In every school building school counselors are meeting the needs of students through academic, career and social/emotional planning. We are directly supporting the instruction that is occurring in the classroom and providing a comprehensive program that reaches all of the students in our buildings. Professional school counselors are the essential link for parents to know about in a school system, school counselors are a strong advocate for their students in preparing them for their futures.

LFA: Thank you for participating, and thank you for all the work you do on behalf of your students and school counselors across the country.

It is my pleasure, I am so happy you reached out and I am hopeful together we can make the public more aware of the essential role we play in the education system.

School Characteristics