Ken Plum: A push in the right direction
I can remember every word of the conversation as if it took place yesterday, but it happened in 1959. I am reminded of the talk as the person speaking to me, Mrs. Lena Kite, passed away last week at age 94. She was the first person to hold the position of guidance counselor at then Shenandoah High School. She called me into her office one day just as I was entering my senior year of high school. She said, “Kenneth (no one called me Ken in those days), it is time for you to think about applying to go to college.” I was dumbfounded! I hardly knew how to respond. I finally uttered, “I cannot go to college; no one in my family has ever gone to college.” She assured me that yes I could go to college.
Mrs. Kite changed the entire trajectory of my life that day. I was about to graduate from high school which was the expectation for me. My parents who taught me so much of the basics of life of honesty, decency, and hard work had themselves finished but a couple of years of schooling. They had not talked to me about college for it was beyond their knowledge and beyond what they thought could be their children’s aspirations. But Mrs. Kite in her new role as guidance counselor knew better and got me to thinking differently about my future. I owe her a great debt of gratitude and told her that the couple of times I saw her over the last decade when we talked about the two degrees I have. Her obituary said that in her role first as a teacher of typing and shorthand and later as guidance counselor she touched the lives of more than 6,000 children. I am sure she had as equally a positive impact on them as well.
In my first years in the General Assembly there was a debate over several sessions about adding guidance counselors in the elementary schools. My experiences personally and as an educator convinced me of the importance of early intervention with children who have needs beyond what classroom teachers have the time or expertise with which to respond. Evaluations of school programs have clearly shown the importance of and value of support personnel in schools to include counselors, social workers and psychologists.
Children in our schools represent the broad cross section of communities. Some have limited exposure to education as I had; others have had traumatic experiences that must be taken into account if their school experience is going to be successful. As we look to end the classroom to prison pipeline as part of criminal justice reform we have come to recognize the importance of early school experiences for students to be successful. Most everyone needs a push or at least a nudge from time to time in order to go in the right direction. I look forward to the continuance of establishing early childhood programs, improved ratios for teachers and counselors, and other improvements to our public schools as the General Assembly convenes next week.
Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.