Megan Walter’s calling is to be a helper, which made her job as a school counselor to the 500 freshmen at Wakefield High School in Raleigh a natural fit.
Walter, who is now the dean of students at the new North Wake College and Career Academy, kept close tabs on Wakefield’s freshmen for nearly a decade to help them navigate the transition to high school. Walter was recognized for her hard work Wednesday by being named Wake County’s 2017 School Counselor of the Year.
“She’s not just a hero at Wakefield, but she’s a hero in the Wake County Public School System,” Crystal Reardon, Wake’s director of counseling, said as Walter’s award was announced at a surprise ceremony in front of cheering freshmen at Wakefield.
School officials say hundreds more hardworking school counselors and social workers like Walter are needed to help students deal with a wide range of challenges such as failing grades, bullying, thoughts of suicide and other mental health issues, chronic absenteeism and difficult home situations.
National groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker for every 250 students. The ratio in Wake is one social worker for every 1,860 students and one counselor for every 630 elementary school students, 372 middle school students and 393 high school students.
School leaders have a three-year, $30 million plan to hire 440 additional counselors and social workers to bring Wake to the nationally recommended average. The first year calls for spending $10 million to hire 147 more counselors and social workers.
“This addition recognizes the school system’s need to respond to the increasing social and emotional challenges that our school populations represent,” Wake Superintendent Jim Merrill says in his budget message asking for more county funding this year.
The plan is in doubt because Wake County Manager Jim Hartmann has recommended providing the school board with only $16 million of its requested $45.2 million increase in local funding.
Walter says that if counselors had 250 or fewer students to work with they could do more to get to know individual students. She said getting to know students is so important because their personal and social issues often affect their academic achievement.
“When you have 500 kids, it’s really hard to meet everybody’s individual unique needs,” said Walter, 43, who has been a school counselor for nearly 20 years.
Even with the large workload, Wakefield principal Malik Bazzell said he was impressed by Walter’s “extreme level of commitment” that led her to meet regularly with all the freshmen. Bazzell credits Walter’s hard work with helping Wakefield’s freshmen have a lower failure rate than other grade levels, which is not the case at many high schools.
“She’s one of those types of individuals that you just kind of unleash upon the school,” Bazzell said. “You don’t have to manage them in any way and you’ll see the school grow and the kids grow because of it.”
Walter said that even before the school year started, she looked at the records of incoming freshmen to see who might need help. Within the first few weeks of school, she had private meetings with all 500 freshmen and then regular meetings every three weeks with struggling students.
Emily Paz, 14, a Wakefield freshman, credits Walter with helping her get her act together after she slacked off at the start of the school year. Emily said she cried when she learned that Walter, her “best friend,” left Wakefield in May.
“She’s awesome sauce,” Emily said.
Justyn Dease, 15, a sophomore, said the Wake school counselor award was Walter’s even before she won it. Justyn said Walter was always there when he needed her advice.
“I just felt like I could really trust her, like I didn’t have to watch my tongue,” Justyn said.
Walter said it was her job to make sure that students knew they could turn to her whenever they needed.
“They know that they have a safe place where they can talk and that they’re not going to be judged and that they’re going to receive the help that they need,” she said.
There should be no question in anyone’s mind about why more counselors and social workers are needed, according to school board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler.
As one example, Johnson-Hostler cited the recent News & Observer “Counted Out” series that shows many bright low-income students have missed out on rigorous and challenging classes that could lead them to college and higher-level careers. One solution cited in the series is to have more counselors who can help make sure students are taking the challenging courses they need.
School board members are hoping to persuade the Wake County Board of Commissioners to provide more than the $16 million increase proposed by Hartmann.
“The reality is if we get $16 million, close to nothing in our budget might be funded,” Johnson-Hostler said.