Brookhaven native receives state counseling award

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Brookhaven native’s drive to help at-risk students succeed intheir studies has earned her the Schillig Society’s High SchoolCounselor of the Year Award from Mississippi State University.

Nancy Sylvester, a counselor at Lanier High School, said shehelps students to realize the importance of a high schooldiploma.

“In order for children to be successful in life, they must havea high school education,” she said. “Graduating high school justdoesn’t seem to be a priority for many students.”

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Sylvester, 1973 Brookhaven High School graduate, is in herfourth year at Lanier High School and was nominated for the awardby Dr. Earl Watkins, superintendent of the Jackson Public SchoolDistrict.

“Mrs. Sylvester has been a pacemaker for the heartbeat of theschool community,” he said in a news release. “She understandschildren and, more than that, she cares about them. There’s proofof her caring in thousands of ways because she’s touched the livesof literally thousands of children.”

Sylvester, the daughter of Edgar and Ruby Wilcher of Brookhaven,said she believes an open door policy, and one-on-one contact withevery student is essential for a school counselor.

“A lot of people went through school and never even met theircounselor. That’s just wrong,” she said. “A counselor’s concernshould be whatever the students are dealing with on a day-to-daybasis. You can’t do that if you’ve never met them.

“My philosophy of counseling is only four words long – Everystudent, every day,” she added. “That concept may be an impossibledream, but it has certainly given me all the motivation I need todedicate myself to a lifelong counseling career.”

Her closeness to her students helped her to improve Lanier’sgraduation rate. The Mississippi Department of Education had madeavailable free teacher-led online courses to help students impactedby Hurricane Katrina. Sylvester identified 31 at-risk Lanierstudents and enrolled them in the courses.

Those enrolled were average students, she said, but could notattend regular classes for a variety of reasons. However, they wereonly a few credits short of graduating with their 2005 class.

Additionally, since the courses were designed for students towork independently at home and they did not have computers there,Sylvester arranged for them to work in a computer lab beforeschool, after school and at various times during the day.

A total of 26 of the 31 students successfully completed thecourse and graduated with their class.

The counselor hopes an abstinence program she started this yearperforms as well.

“It keeps me working a little harder than I wanted to work thisyear, but it seems to be working well,” Sylvester said.

Although Sylvester said this was the first time she had won anaward of the magnitude of MSU’s High School Counselor of the Year,she was featured on a Dateline documentary by Tom Brokaw entitled”Separate But Unequal” in July 2006 for her efforts in helpingat-risk students break the cycle of poverty.

“They featured several students I worked with over the years andthe struggles they’ve had to overcome in their lives,” shesaid.

The Schillig Society’s recognition came with a $500 cashaward.