Nicole Pfleger (M.Ed. '06) named National School Counselor of the Year

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Nicole Pfleger

Nicole Pfleger (M.Ed. ’06), a school counselor in Smyrna, Ga., has been named National School Counselor of the Year by the American School Counselor Association.

Pfleger learned of the award Thursday during a surprise school assembly where she works, Nickajack Elementary School. ASCA President Alan Burkhard and Cobb County School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa presented the award to Pfleger as family, school employees, district school board members and students watched.

Pfleger was among more than 400 nominees for the award, which is the highest national honor for school counselors. Candidates are judged on a set of criteria that includes creative school counseling innovations, effective programs, leadership skills and contribution to student advancement.

“Nicole is deserving of the award because of her intense focus on meeting the needs of her students and families,” said Gail Smith, supervisor of school counseling for the Cobb County School District. “She balances her data-driven program with community outreach and involvement. Not only does she provide support to families that are experiencing difficulty, she teaches her students to give back to the community with their unique talents and gifts. She sees no boundaries in her school counseling program, and strives to ensure that her students receive the best education possible.”

Pfleger is a native of Cobb County. She earned her undergraduate degree in early childhood education at the University Of Georgia before obtaining her masters in school counseling at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education. She also has an educational specialist degree in educational leadership from Lincoln Memorial University.

She joined Nickajack Elementary as school counselor in 2006.

In conjunction with National Counseling Week, Pfleger will visit Washington, D.C., in February with five other national finalists, representing ASCA in meetings with members of Congress. She’ll tour the nation's capital and attend an awards gala at Union Station.

Record of success at UNC’s school counseling program

Pfleger said that every day she employs practices and knowledge gained in Carolina’s school counseling program.

“The most valuable lesson that I learned was the importance of building relationships not only with students, but with all stakeholders of the school community,” she said. “I also learned to be intentional in everything that I do to ensure that students are impacted by the role of the school counselor in their lives.”

Alumni of the master’s of education in school counseling program at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education have established a record of success recognized by colleagues in their field. For the last two years, graduates of the program – Jessica Thompson (M.Ed. ’02) and Rebecca Atkins (M.Ed. ’03) – were named Elementary School Counselor of the Year by the North Carolina School Counselor Association. In 2008, another – Kelly Ponder (M.Ed. ’02) – was a semi-finalist for National Counselor of the Year. Numerous others have been honored with awards in their districts. (A list of recent alumni recognitions is available here.)

“Our graduates excel because talented folks are drawn to the Carolina culture, they work incredibly hard while in the program, and we challenge and push the students a great deal,” said Patrick Akos, associate professor of school counseling and coordinator of the school counseling program. “Counseling is a tough profession as it causes you to examine your own development before you can empower kids and impact K-12 schools. Not everyone is willing to do that, then sacrifice and devote their lives to seeing others thrive.”

The program focuses solely on school counseling, rather than the collection of other types of counseling strands, such as mental health, marriage and family, Akos said, which allows the program to focus on helping school children.

The program also is structured to give participants in-depth exposure to working within schools, with classes during two days of the week during the academic year and work at placement sites during the other three days, said John Galassi, a professor of school counseling who has taught in the program since 1973.

“Our students profit in developing their skills and knowledge in two ways. First, there is little or no delay between what they are learning in the classroom and the opportunity to apply it almost immediately in their field placement,” Galassi said. “The second benefit is they are able to experience and participate in a school counseling program over the entire school year as they begin their school placements about a week before the schools begin instruction and continue throughout the entire school year.

“So they begin their first year of employment as a practicing school counselor having already had experiences over an entire school year as a school counseling intern.”

The school worksite placements are designed to expose program participants to diverse student populations, said Dana Griffin, assistant professor of school counseling.

“We want our students to be able to work with any school population and we teach culturally appropriate counseling strategies for working with ethnically, racially, and culturally diverse K-12 populations,” she said. “Our program is short, but intense, and couples didactic learning with experiential learning which enables our student to enter the field with a complete picture of what is needed to be a professional school counselor.“

Griffin said Carolina’s school counseling program graduates are highly sought by school districts.

“Even in this time of economic turmoil, we have been blessed to have a high number of our students find jobs in school counseling,” she said. “Further, we continue to have requests from current school counselors seeking our students for site placement.  As one person informed me, UNC-Chapel Hill always has high quality students and she looks forward to working with our students each year.”

Q&A with Nicole Pfleger

How did UNC’s school counseling program prepare you for your work?

“The first-rate instruction and internship experiences during my program at UNC gave me the tools that I need to be successful in my career as a school counselor. I was able to spend an entire school year at New Hope Elementary School under the supervision of an incredible counselor, Kim Kelleher. As students in the school counseling program, we were trained in the use of the American School Counselor Association National Model and developed a comprehensive program as a culminating project. The training provided me with a road map for building a comprehensive school counseling program by developing a mission and belief statements, analyzing data to identify areas of need, writing measurable goals, and implementing data-driven programs.”

How often do you find yourself using practices or other learning that you gained in your UNC program?

“There is not a day that goes by that I do not pull from the practices and knowledge that I gained as a student in the School Counseling Program at UNC. The most valuable lesson that I learned was the importance of building relationships not only with students, but with all stakeholders of the school community. I also learned to be intentional in everything that I do to ensure that students are impacted by the role of the school counselor in their lives. I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to be a student at UNC and to have had the guidance of Professors Akos and Galassi as a graduate assistant.”