Texas School Counselor Of The Year Rhonda Ramirez

Hispanic Community November 2021 PREMIUM
Pushing Through A Pandemic To Serve Students

In the spring of 2020, nothing could have prepared school counselors in the United States for the ripple effect of the coronavirus pandemic. They had to pivot to figure out how to best help their students as well as teachers, parents, families, and staff amidst rising cases of COVID-19 and school closures. The demands were great dealing with the unknown. In the middle of the chaos and uncertainty, the Lone Star State School Counselor Association (LSSSCA) kept to their annual awards schedule and announced the Lone Star School Counselor of the Year: Rhonda Ramirez at Naaman Forest High School in Garland, Texas, which serves 2,251 students in grades 9–12.

A bittersweet Victory

“I felt very guilty,” Ramirez said. “I didn’t feel worthy. We were all just trying to keep our heads above water, like all my kids. Celebrating when so many were suffering or struggling or trying to do their jobs felt wrong.”

Yet, the LSSSCA offered a lifeline. As a chartered state division of the American School Counselor Association, LSSSCA has more than 2,000 members. Its goal is to provide services and resources to meet the needs of school counselors across the state of Texas.

The School Counselor of the Year (SCOY) award ended up helping Ramirez in ways she hadn’t expected. Meeting new people, networking, sharing ideas and resources across the country with other finalists helped when pandemic overwhelm hit. “In the middle of that storm, you don’t know how you’re doing. Having camaraderie and support was crucial last year.”

The Counselor’s Path

The Lone Star School Counselor of the Year award honors outstanding professional school counselors in Texas for their service and achievements. Winners are selected after an extensive outreach process for nominations of professional school counselors who run exemplary school counseling programs. Applicants must submit essays, videos, and more. The winner is selected by the board. Four past winners have gone on to compete for the National School Counselor of the Year.

Ramirez’s desire to help students grew after earning a bachelor’s degree in education at the University of Texas at Dallas. She started teaching ELL students to meet and pass their assessments. When they graduated, however, many did not pursue college. “They could get jobs but not a career. It made me sad. I wanted to be that person to help students transition to whatever post-secondary path they chose—college, military, trade.”

Their predicament hit too close to home. Her husband had grown up with a single mom, just scraping by. He worked full time and paid 90% of his college. “He was a good student but because he never heard of FAFSA, he never applied for scholarships or funding. It was a rough road. I didn’t want any other kids to go through that if there was an opportunity.”

A Counselor’s Role

Ramirez returned to Amberton University to earn a master’s degree in school counseling. Now, as the lead school counselor on a team of seven at Naaman Forest, their goal is to “enable all students to become successful, productive citizens and lifelong learners in a diverse and changing world.”

“Our role has changed a lot since I was in high school.” Counselors met with students once a year, mostly to make their schedules. Fast forward to 2021. Counselors build relationships first. “We meet students approximately six times a year,” says Ramirez. She’s available to them through social media and email. For wider outreach, they make school-wide presentations about dating, violence, bullying, mental health wellness, among other pressing issues.

“Counselors are trying to be proactive, not reactive,” explains Monica Dominguez, LSSSCA School Counselor of the Year Committee Chair and past SCOY winner. Before students get to the point of failing a class or struggling with mental health issues, counselors help them develop academic skills, social skills, college and career readiness, and social-emotional learning.

At Naaman Forest, counselors reach out by making their offices welcoming and homey. “I’m a Southerner,” says Ramirez. “I’m a big believer in food.”

Students walking past the big plate-glass office window can see candy and cookies set out or smell popcorn popping. They come in and ask if they can have some. “It opens the door of hospitality. We are intentionally slow to fill a bag of popcorn so we can break the ice and ask questions. It lays the groundwork in hopes they’ll find our offices a safe and comfortable haven.”

Once they come in, they keep coming in, says Ramirez.

One day she was meeting with a student who was a tough kid with a complicated home life. “As he got up to leave, I asked if he needed a hug. Surprisingly, he said “yes” and gave me a huge hug. Maybe that was all he needed—for someone to know his burden. He started coming by once a week to chit-chat. I’ll remember that breakthrough the rest of my life.”

Impactful Programs Through a Pandemic

Ramirez and her team created an interactive day for all 544 seniors. Named LEAP 2020 to coincide with the leap year, the idea was to help them “leap” into post-secondary options. Six stations were set up to complete college and FAFSA/TAFSA applications, get meningitis shots, and learn about military enlistment.

School counselors worked with the students. For each completed station, they earned a raffle ticket for door prizes. Chips and salsa, and quesadillas were donated. A D.J. played music.

“I’m kind of crazy, but when you’re dealing with teenagers, you have to go big or go home, or they’ll blow you off,” says Ramirez. It worked. Many seniors completed the stations relevant to their post-secondary needs.

It was great timing. The shutdown of the school came shortly after that, in March.

“My role changed from that point on.” Ramirez moved the school counseling office to a thriving virtual platform. “We had to adapt, learn tech, and we became more accessible in many ways.”

They used Zoom and Google Suite for better outreach. Students still met with their counselors one-on-one for mental, social/emotional and physical well-being. More parents, including a father in the military who was deployed, were available for parent-teacher meetings.

Since 2020, needs assessments have shifted. Mental health had been a primary concern, but the highest “new” need was time management. “Students might want to be ready for this normal, not what used to be.”

Uplifting Students

During Ramirez’s tenure, the school has improved from a C rating to an A rating from the state. But for her, it’s all about connection, helping students feel valued so they can succeed. “When your children walk into the room, your eyes should light up. Be happy to see them. Some of them are going through so much. Let them know you’ve got their back and you love them for who they are.”

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