Raleigh school counselor builds relationships with students

Durenda Ward isn’t Centennial Campus Middle School’s physical education teacher, but the award-winning counselor spends a lot of time on the track with students.

Ward regularly holds one-on-one walks on the track with students to help them talk through the challenges they’re encountering as they go through adolescence to become teenagers. The stories Ward hears can be heart-wrenching, but they’ve helped strengthen her relationships with students at the Raleigh magnet school.

“Sometimes it’s nice to have that fresh air to be able to speak freely and openly, to yell and to scream or cry,” Ward said. “Sometimes just walking and taking a deep breath of fresh air helps keeps them calm, cool and collected.”

For her efforts, Ward, 39, is one of six finalists for 2016 National School Counselor of the Year. She will travel to the White House in January to be recognized for her contributions to helping students succeed.

Counselors play vital roles in helping students cope with bullying, difficult home situations, issues of self-esteem and clashes between groups of different backgrounds, all potential barriers to academic success.

“She knows our problems,” said Brianna Tamarez, 13, an eighth-grade student at Centennial. “She’s always been a shoulder to lean on.”

Ward, a Broughton High School graduate, says there’s never a dull moment at Centennial, where she has worked at since 2010.

From the moment Ward walks in to work, she might talk with students who’ve had a rough night or speak with parents concerned about how their children are doing. She said she deals with some students who are considering injuring themselves.

If students are having issues with other students or even with teachers, Ward will hold mediation sessions to try to defuse the problems.

When issues crop up such as incidents of bullying, Ward will go into the classrooms to talk with students. For instance, Ward said she recently spoke with a class after a Muslim student was being bullied following the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Ward said she tried to get the students to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. She wanted the students to learn to show respect for each others’ beliefs and to report incidents of bullying.

In addition to ethnic stereotyping, Ward said, another hot topic she encounters involves questions about transgender issues.

“I feel like the counselors are on the front lines with the students,” Ward said. “We’re here to help them have a wonderful personal (and) social experience so that they can focus on class and learn the academic piece.”

Ward also finds time to work with a group of at-risk boys and to advise a leadership group for girls. Before the winter break, Ward and the girls’ group dropped off winter clothing they had collected for the homeless and low-income women being helped by the Wake County Women’s Center in Raleigh.

Sometimes Ward will make home visits to talk with parents about what they can do to help their children.

Katie McMillan, Centennial Middle principal, said Ward goes beyond what’s required of a counselor. McMillan said it would typically take three people to do all the things Ward does.

“She really honors children as leaders and supports them to grow in that way, which truly is a whole school benefit for the individual and the school,” McMillan said.

Ward’s primary focus this school year is the eighth-grade class, for whom she served as the sixth-grade counselor when they began at the middle school. Over the past 2  1/2 years, the students have developed a comfort level in talking to Ward.

“We’re teenagers,” said Brianna, the eighth-grade student. “Sometimes we start to make bad choices, but she’s always there to help us.”

Zaira Van Hemert, 13, an eighth-grade student, said Ward helped her make the transition from elementary school and has been there for her ever since.

“She makes me feel comfortable,” Zaira said. “I feel like I can be very open to her. She always finds time for us.”

Ward’s work has earned her recognition over the past few years. She was named Middle School Counselor of the Year by the Wake County school system in 2014 and by North Carolina in 2015.

Ward said she hopes the latest recognition by the American School Counselor Association will highlight all the things counselors do.

“I really hope people understand what counselors do, that we’re just not sitting in our offices all day drinking coffee, that we’re out there trying to help students get through their day,” Ward said. “We’re trying our best to help them be successful so they can be wonderful great leaders for our society.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

Durenda Johnson Ward

Age: 39

Lives in: Raleigh

Hometown: Raleigh

Family: Husband, Robert; sons, Robert, 9, and Daniel, 3.

Education: Master’s in higher education counseling, N.C. State University, 2005; bachelor’s in business administration, UNC Greensboro, 2001; bachelor’s in international business, UNC Greensboro, 1998