PA School Counselor of the Year reinvents initiatives for Shaler kids during the pandemic

Photo: Lezlie DelVecchio-Marks has instituted several unique programs in Shaler schools, including some that are virtual. Photo courtesy of Shaler Area School District.

Lezlie DelVecchio-Marks has earned the gratitude of Shaler students, their parents and teachers through small gestures of kindness and unique classroom programming.

It’s one reason that DelVecchio-Marks was named Pennsylvania School Counselor of the Year by the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association (PSCA). She was recognized during a PSCA virtual ceremony and will go to Washington, D.C., next year when she’ll be eligible for national recognition.

Lezlie DelVecchio-Marks.

“When they told me, I was so excited and honored — I was floored that I was even nominated,” says DelVecchio-Marks, who has worked as a school counselor for 19 years, the past 14 of them at Shaler Area School District. She currently serves 510 students at Burchfield Primary and Reserve Primary schools.

It’s not hard to understand why she won the honor. DelVecchio-Marks has created numerous initiatives with support from school staff and the community: Red Ribbon Week, Safety Day, Children’s Grief Awareness Day, Gratitude Week, No Name-Calling Week and Career Day. She has hosted parent workshops and advocated for students’ academic, career and social/emotional development — even reinforcing female empowerment with a No Makeup Day for staff.

This year, with Shaler schools on a hybrid schedule with virtual and in-classroom learning, she actually feels more connected to kids because she’s able to work with smaller groups and still reach everyone through online learning.

“All summer I was planning for virtual, attending webinars. I did a lot of professional development, and that kind of prepared me for learning the technology,” she says. “In March, we were a little tech-y and I was sort of low-tech then. But now people are asking me questions and I actually did a learning session. Now I make slide presentations so kids at home see exactly what the kids behind me are seeing on their teacher’s smart board.”

Her latest tool is a virtual program called The Calming Room. There are tabs for various activities to help kids — meditation, mindfulness, brain-boosting projects, color and creativity lessons, visual relaxation, sounds and music. Her Bitmoji on the homepage explains how to use the program.

“A lot of kids are anxious,” she says, a problem that has intensified during the Covid pandemic.

Clear barriers and masks enable Lezlie DelVecchio-Marks to meet with students individually during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Shaler Area School District.

Counseling young kids involves both individual and group meetings. Masks, clear barriers and spacing of chairs enable her to still sit down with kids one-on-one when necessary or in small groups.

DelVecchio-Marks created a Connections Café lunchtime group to encourage kids to eat together and get to know one another. With a little creativity, she’s continued that program virtually on days when kids aren’t in the school buildings, using a question wheel that spins.

“Their names are on it and they answer a question, so everyone learns fun facts about the kids while they’re eating lunch,” she says. “The kids love it. By keeping it virtual, I wouldn’t have been able to have 12 or 15 kids with me. You have to be really flexible — have things planned, but have a backup plan and another backup plan, because things change.”

Though not mandated in Pennsylvania, and threatened by potential state budget cuts, school counselors are an important part of learning, especially for elementary-age kids, says DelVecchio-Marks. They’re an outgrowth of the old-fashioned guidance counselor who used to help students at the high school level.

“I’m in all the classrooms; all the kids know me,” she says. “You have to get them started early on their interests and help with problem-solving, social skills, friendship skills and advocating for themselves if they’re bullied or teased.”

One of Lezlie DelVecchio-Marks’s favorites activities is working with kids in the classroom. Photo courtesy of Shaler Area School District.

DelVecchio-Marks, who lives in Richland with her husband and daughters Gianna, 8, and Maria, 5, didn’t set out to become a school counselor when she enrolled in Duquesne University to major in sociology. She thought she’d become a social worker in a nursing home. That changed when she went for her master’s at Duquesne and was offered a choice between two graduate assistantships: gerontology or school counseling.

“I never envisioned myself working with kids,” she says. “But I think sometimes the stars align for you and you’re supposed to do what you are supposed to do. It was kind of a fluke, but I was open to things. I knew I wanted to help people.”

Certified for K-12, DelVecchio-Marks’s first job was at an elementary school in Gateway School District, filling in for a mentor who took a maternity leave in 2001.

“I remember walking in that building, thinking, these kids walk to school in a straight line, they’re walking to the bathroom in a straight line,” she says. “You know, in high school, you just go. But they’re walking with their class, and I was getting hugs all over the place. That was my first experience in elementary and I loved it. I fell into it, and that was my niche.”

Now, she likes working with younger students because their energy level matches hers. “This is where you can really make an impact, start shaping things,” she says. “It’s where the magic really happens.”

Her words of advice for any parent is to keep the lines of communication open with their kids, no matter the topic or their age.

“Be prepared to look supportive, even if internally you are mortified by what you might hear so that they feel comfortable communicating,” she says. “It starts with families. If kids feel supported and encouraged, no matter what, and know that it’s okay to make mistakes because we all do, I think that’s a good framework for the future. I know that can’t happen in every family, but if we try to instill that in kids, and give them a lot of loving when they’re younger, that hopefully paves the way for future comfort and success.”