As part of National School Counseling Week, celebrated this year Feb. 7-11, Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) is highlighting the key role school counselors play in the academic success and overall well-being of all Gwinnett school children.
In a streamed awards program on Feb. 8, the school district named its top counseling award winners for 2022. They are:
2022 Gwinnett County Elementary School Counselor of the Year:
Dr. Tawonda Hunter of Hopkins Elementary School
Dr. Tawonda Hunter has a passion for children and making a difference in their lives—whether it’s through church ministry, work in the community, or her role as a school counselor. In her application, she says, “Every child deserves a champion and I strive to be that champion for all students that I serve.”
Gabriel Zaragoza, Hopkins Elementary’s principal, sees that passion every day. He explains, “Throughout my time at Hopkins, I have known Dr. Hunter to be a go-getter. In the schoolhouse, Dr. Hunter uses every available minute to support students. You can find her delivering group lessons in dress-up gear like Mr. Potato Head, working with individual or small groups, or supporting some of our smallest learners understand how we can make friends.”
Dr. Hunter believes in developing collaborative relationships to help students receive the things they need. At Hopkins Elementary, she worked with the program director at a community organization called Vision to Learn to provide students with free vision screenings, eye exams, and glasses. The services were available for both in-person and digital students. In the end, nearly 600 students received screenings, more than 215 received eye exams, and more than 175 received glasses. An additional 24 students with major issues were referred to outside facilities and service providers.
Mr. Zaragoza adds, “As I reflect upon our interactions, I don’t believe Dr. Hunter has ever said the word ‘no.’ Rather, she always replies with ‘Okay, we got this.’ She truly represents Hopkins Elementary with a model counseling program that works to get better each day to serve all students. Our students and staff are appreciative of the hard work she has done to build our counseling program and provide a positive atmosphere so students can feel comfortable and safe being who they are.”
2022 Gwinnett County Middle School Counselor of the Year:
Elizabeth Butler of Crews Middle School
With nearly a decade and a half of experience, Elizabeth Butler is a veteran counselor who focuses on getting to know the whole student. She explains, “I want to know my students on a personal level—the things they like, their family dynamics and traditions, their plans for the day, the year, or beyond. I take the time to get to know them as people, not just as students. It is from this deeper understanding of individuals that fuels my desire to advocate.”
The principal at Crews Middle School, Dr. Brett Savage, says his award-winning counselor is known for being compassionate and an advocate. He adds, “Mrs. Butler provides support and nurturing for our 6th graders and helps them feel comfortable in their own skin at a time when it isn’t so easy to feel comfortable and confident in their own skin.” Mrs. Butler cares deeply and acts assertively to support those under her care, working to understand the true need of each student and then meet those needs to their best of her ability.
Mrs. Butler led efforts to establish the “No Place for Hate” program at Crews Middle nearly seven years ago. Under her leadership, students have engaged in a variety of activities—like the Crews Middle School “No Place for Hate poetry contest” and “poetry slam”—to earn the annual No Place for Hate designation for the school. Mrs. Butler stays connected to students by having an open-door policy. She explains, “I tell my students that if they come by and my door is open, they are welcome and I will listen to them right then. If the door is closed, it means that I am already meeting with a student, parent ,or teacher, but they can slide a note under my door to let me know they want to be seen.”
2022 Gwinnett County Secondary School Counselor of the Year:
Donyale Turner of Duluth High School
Dr. Eric Davidson, the principal at Duluth High School says Donyale Turner is truly an example of what any parent would want to see in their child’s counselor. He explains, “At the core of all of her work, Mrs. Turner is a student advocate, first and foremost. This passion drives everything she does and can be seen in each part of her work. She is able to talk about each of the students on her caseload at remarkable depth, especially those who are struggling.”
With nearly 24 years of experience as a counselor, Mrs. Turner has a wealth of knowledge that she willingly shares with her peers who are new to the profession. As a GCPS New Counselor Induction Representative, Mrs. Turner meets with new counselors and provides them with resources, referrals, and good advice.
She also believes student information is one of the keys to her job. She explains, “As the new counselor induction representative for Gwinnett County Public Schools, internship supervisor, member on the Duluth Equity Committee, and guest speaker at numerous conferences, I have used these platforms to express the importance of data when designing a counseling program and assessing student needs.”
Mrs. Turner also has played a key role in the development of the Duluth High School Social Emotional Learning and Equity work. Dr. Davidson says her wisdom and guidance have been invaluable during the process of developing activities for teachers, advisement lessons for students and overall framework to move forward. “Whether it is providing coats, meals, eyeglasses, or Christmas presents, she is always working quietly behind the scenes to make sure our students’ needs are met. Duluth High could not be more proud of Mrs. Turner. We consider ourselves bless to have a person of her caliber and character serving our students,” Dr. Davidson says.
2022 Gwinnett County Mary Joe Hannaford Counselor Administrator of the Year:
Dr. Lesley Y. Pendleton of Berkeley Lake Elementary School
The counseling staff at Berkeley Lake Elementary School (BLES) call Dr. Lesley Pendleton “a school counselor’s dream principal.” Praised for collaborating and challenging them, Dr. Pendleton is credited with understanding and valuing the role, work, and contribution of Berkeley Lake Elementary’s counseling department. Laura Marantz, a counselor at BLES, explains, “Dr. Pendleton was very thoughtful and attentive each time we met her first year. She made it a priority to get to know us, our beliefs, values, and the mission of the BLES counseling department. Then and now, she always makes time for the impromptu meetings that are an essential part of supporting the school counseling program, , given the nature of our work. She is never too busy to prioritize student needs.”
Dr. Pendleton is a strong advocate of the school’s counseling department, taking an active role in assisting with the work. When the counselors wanted to form a voluntary trauma-sensitive steering committee to explore how to become a more trauma-sensitive school, Dr. Pendelton joined the committee and is a very active member. Ms. Marantz adds, “She does the work right alongside of the counselors and teachers on the committee. When we were collecting data on our trauma needs, we discovered our staff needed protection from compassion fatigue. Concerned, Dr. Pendleton acted swiftly and thoughtfully—creating Staff Fun Fridays, adding community-building circles to most meetings, and giving us time to process difficult topics and experiences together.”
Dr. Pendleton has set the tone at Berkeley Lake Elementary that counselors are vital and valuable. Counselors feel welcomed and wanted in classrooms, in part, because of her attitude toward their role and her expectation that they are a part of each classroom and each student’s education.
At GCPS’ annual recognition event, the district also honored Berkeley Lake Elementary School as a 2021 RAMP recipient. Gwinnett currently has 34 counseling departments that are recipients of the Recognized ASCA Model Program (RAMP) National Award. Awarded by the American School Counselor Association, the RAMP designation recognizes schools that are committed to delivering a comprehensive, data-driven counseling program. This is the third time BLES has earned RAMP recognition. Every five years, schools are required to “Re-RAMP” to retain this certification.
GCPS counselors continue to be among the most recognized when it comes to state and national honors. Teshia Stovall Dula, a counselor at Hull Middle School, was a finalist for the 2021 National School Counselor of the Year. She is the latest in a long list of GCPS counselors who have been honored at the national level. Recent honorees include Laura Ross of Five Forks Middle School, who was named the 2020 National School Counselor of the Year; Stacey Miller, a 2016 semifinalist for the national honor; Jennifer Diaz of Lanier Middle School, a finalist for 2015 National Counselor of the Year; Andrea Hodgin, a semifinalist for the 2015 national honor; and Robin Zorn of Mason Elementary, who was named the 2014 National School Counselor of the Year.