The hyped-up buzz of several thousand students hurrying through the halls of Northport High School on Long Island is matched this week by the buzz of having their very own Jenny Konop named School Counselor of the Year for New York State.
“It is staggering how the efforts of one person can make a difference in one family,” wrote local resident Colleen McManus in her recommendation for the honor. She signed her letter “Grateful Mother” after explaining how Konop helped both her daughter and her son with schedules, programs and emotional needs.
To kick off this year’s National School Counselor Week, Konop was flown to Washington, D.C. for two days of events, including a gala and a ceremony at the Kennedy Center featuring former First Lady Michelle Obama in her first major speech since leaving the White House. Obama told the group that the work of counselors “isn’t easy, especially right now. I know there’s a lot of anxiety out there. And there’s no denying our kids, what they see on TV, the kind of behavior being modeled in public life — all of that, yes — impacts their behavior and their character... But at times like this the work you all are doing is even more urgent. It’s even more critically important.”
The ceremony was a collaboration of the American School Counselor Association and Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher initiative.
“I’ve come back really humbled, and really inspired,” says Konop, an idea generator who frequently peppers colleagues with new plans. She now wants to start a program that matches older students who have “If Only I’d Have Done This!” experiences with younger students.
Konop is a member of the United Teachers of Northport. Her counseling office in the brick, two-story high school is part of a welcoming center outfitted with colorful couches and ottomans. Ten counselors work here, and each has a caseload of 200 students. Their days may be carefully planned to guide students with high school schedules, interests, problems and college or workplace goals, only to see life intervene with a sharp edge.
“You pick up the phone and a kid’s in crisis and you shift your day,” Konop says. The counselors work with teachers, the school’s two social workers, two psychologists, and administrators as needed.
“No counselor works alone. It’s all about collaboration,” she says. “I do a lot of academic and work counseling. One of the biggest shifts since I’ve been here is that now there is so much more of a mental health component.”
Anxiety tops the list, she said, noting that it doesn’t discriminate, affecting high-performing students and students from all backgrounds. Many families are under stress with a tight economy, Konop points out.
Counselors here work with town and county programs such as Sanctuary, a town program for students at risk of running away; Huntington Youth Directive Alternatives; and supports for substance abuse. Northport High School also has a dedicated drug and alcohol counselor who works with students and parents.
The countrywide heroin epidemic has taken a toll on students who once walked these high school halls. “We’ve lost a number of graduates this past year,” Konop says, adding that “vaping has become a big issue” too.
Although she is the daughter of two educators, retired Northport math teacher Harriet McNamara and Commack science teacher Terry McNamara, Konop didn’t set out to work in education. She worked as a tech recruiter and then in finance in New York City.
And then the 9-11 terrorist attacks happened.
She moved back in with her parents on Long Island and went back to college, focusing on how much she liked coaching lacrosse. Underneath that, she discovered that she liked working in small groups, and one on one. Counseling became her calling.
“It’s a fun place to be, in the high school. The students are still young. We stay with our students all four years. We really get to know our students well,” says Konop, whose husband, Alex, is a math teacher.
What does it mean to be a 21st Century school counselor?
Her own career changes are solid stories for students to grasp. She likes to remind them that the world is changing so fast that 60 percent of jobs have not been created yet. She talks about new jobs, such as a worm engineer, who handles worms that eat compost at landfills. And then there is need for existing jobs, such as plumbers, who are in short supply.
On the job, she takes trips to college consortia, sometimes visiting 10 colleges in three days, to stay informed about new programs and different colleges. Each year students are taken on a field trip to two different campuses, visiting public and private schools and getting “exposure to being on a college campus.”
Konop worked with a student’s mom to create Project Prom, which started out as a small mission to help one student who didn’t have money for a prom dress, and has evolved into a boutique of donated, gently used prom dresses that are professionally cleaned and stored for girls to choose from. This weekend, the school will host Project Prom Boutique. Seamstresses come in and donate their time to alter the dresses, and boys get a reduced rate for suits. Curtains and rods are used to create dressing areas, and shoes and jewelry are also available.
Her duties over the years have included being an advisor to SHARE, Students Helping and Relating to Others, lacrosse coach and swim team supervisor. Konop also presents professional development workshops for teachers on topics, such as how to write a relevant college letter of recommendation for students as requirements shift. She also searches for webinars and documentaries, such as a recent documentary on happiness, to share with teachers and staff,
Colleague Mary Ann Powers, school counselor and UNT member, says “Jenny is one of the first to arrive each morning and is always the last to leave at the end of the day... She is a great listener, and a great supporter, but she also makes sure her students are accountable for their actions.” Her outreach extends to both students and colleagues, Powers says, recalling how Konop spent four years working with a student who had suffered homelessness and been in the foster care system in Tennessee, arriving with failing grades and gaps. “She consistently encouraged and supported him both academically and emotionally,” Powers says, noting the student is now a senior at Yale. When Powers had major surgery after an accident, Konop helped out with her caseload at school and came to Powers’ house with her father and built ramps for her to be able to get outside.
“Jenny is already a winner,” Powers says.