Rim Country Middle School counselor Ginger Sparks doesn't wait around for students to show up at her door in tears. She spends nearly a third of her time in the classroom, teaching students how to make decisions, solve problems, cope with social situations, plan their academic strategies and develop career goals.
Her colleagues, who describe Sparks as energetic, enthusiastic, funny and professional, say she's an inspiration. The students she's helped, who tell tales of tireless caring and devotion, say she's a lifesaver. And her peers, who named Sparks "Arizona Middle School Counselor of the Year" this spring, say she's exceptional.
"I don't think I'm that much different than any other middle school counselor across the state," Sparks says. "We have a tough job, and we work very hard. The difference is that our program and our staff are topnotch."
Four years ago, Sparks started an innovative counseling program at Rim Country Middle School called Comprehensive Competency-Based Guidance that turns traditional counseling methods upside down. While traditional counselors wait for students in crisis to approach them for help, competency-based counselors go into the classrooms and teach students how to avoid trouble and cope with problems. They also help students set career goals and develop academic plans that will help them meet those goals.
"Our kids are facing so many more social and emotional challenges than we ever had to face," says Sparks, who has been a teacher for 23 years and a full-time counselor at RCMS for four years. "If we can teach them how to cope with those problems, then the teachers can teach.
"We try to get the kids to be self-reflective. We help them track their grades and look at the subjects they like, their job choices, job values, future plans, abilities and interests. Then we identify job clusters that might suit them and see if the jobs they want will get them where they want to go.
"We teach them things like life skills and coping skills, and throughout the program we try to get them to figure out their strengths and weaknesses and figure out what they need to work on. What we do supports everything the teachers are doing. If we're doing our jobs well, the students should be doing better in the classrooms."
In just four years, the program has made a dramatic difference, Sparks says.
"We've seen a real drop in our (crisis) services," she says. "Under the traditional system we spent 90 percent of our time with 10 percent of the kids. Now we spend 50 percent of our time with 100 percent of the kids. That's a huge difference."
Payson High School continues the Comprehensive Competency-Based Guidance curriculum through graduation. At that level, the mission of the program is to help students "become responsible adults who can develop realistic and fulfilling life plans based on clear understandings of themselves and their needs, interests and skills."
Sparks says she thinks the district should expand the program to the elementary grades as well.
"We're asking the district to adopt the program district-wide even though we don't have counselors at the elementary level," she says. "I think the teachers are already doing a lot of these things instinctively.
"But our kids are being exposed to drugs earlier and earlier. That's why it's so critical that we get counselors into the elementary grades."
Up until last year, Sparks was the middle school's only counselor for more than 600 students. This year, however, she was joined on the counseling staff by RCMS teacher Janice L. Bartoli, who now serves as a full-time counselor.
"The success of the program has really been a team effort," Sparks says. "The parents, teachers, staff, administration, students have all bought into the program."
But her colleagues say without Sparks' leadership and stubborn enthusiasm, the program never would have gotten off the ground.
"I never cease to be amazed by her zeal, preparedness, enthusiasm and student rapport," RCMS teacher Maureen Echazarreta wrote in her recommendation letter supporting Sparks for the Counselor of the Year Award.
"Most of the innovative guidance programs currently in place were initiated by Mrs. Sparks. She wanted them, lobbied for them and, in some cases, convinced very recalcitrant educators of the opportunities and advantages Comprehensive Competency-Based Guidance instruction would have for our student population."
Sparks is a natural leader and an invaluable ally for students and teachers alike, RCMS science teacher Gloria Joe says.
"Ginger is the counselor you wish every kid could have -- funny, forthright, professional and overworked, but loving every minute of it."