When Jan Mitich joined the Marana Unified School District's governing board in 1989, she was alarmed to discover that none of the district's elementary schools had counselors.
A Tucson-area teacher at the time, she couldn't understand how schools could get by without them. She decided to see that none of them had to. Now, 15 years later, each Marana elementary school has a full-time counseling position written soundly into its budget.
"This was one of my pet projects that I wanted done when I joined the board," said Mitich who is now the board's president. "It took me a lot of time to get done what I wanted done."
Mitich received recognition for her efforts recently in the form of the American School Counselor Association's 2004 Advocate of the Year award. The 16,000-member association has members from all 50 states and around the world.
Last year, Mitich received this same advocacy award from the association's Arizona chapter.
"Advocacy kind of sums her all up," said Kim Holaway, a former Marana counselor who was among the 11 Marana elementary school counselors who nominated Mitich for the honor. "Jan has always had a clear understanding of the role of the school counselor and how a counselor can make a difference in school achievement."
Mitich's understanding came firsthand - partly from the 40-some hours of graduate-level coursework she had completed in school counseling.
"I had a background in counseling and I was appalled we didn't have those counselors," she said. "If you can stop problems in elementary school, you don't have them in high school."
Mitich also remembered the vital function counselors played after sensitive discussions in class - such as those about appropriate and inappropriate touching.
"We would always get girls coming up afterward to tell us they had been molested or were being molested at the time," Mitich said. "The counselor would clear her calendar off because she knew she would be getting some girls" in the office.
Mitich knew of students who were runaways, or who were living in group homes, or who were simply dealing with the disintegration of their parents' marriages. Students needed counseling services that weren't always readily available to rural families.
When Mitich reached her first year of school district budget negotiations as a governing board member, she suggested the district make the counseling program a priority.
She made the same suggestion the next year, and the next, and the next.
"Wherever there was a little bit of wiggle room I wanted another counselor," she said. "I'd squeeze out $30,000 a year or $60,000 a year."
The first counselors were part-time and floated among the elementary schools.
In 1997, Mitich joined a committee of teachers and district employees who wanted to figure out what to do with disruptive students.
After two years of meeting with each other and surveying teachers in the district, the committee offered its No. 1 suggestion to the governing board: Put a full-time counselor in each elementary school.
"I had a feeling this would come out of it, I hoped it would, and it did," Mitich said.
The committee's support advanced Mitich's cause, she said.
"All these years I was looking for a little money for an extra counselor but it was just me pushing," Mitich said. "Then the discipline committee validated my concern."
The governing board agreed to step up its efforts, but in 1999 that effort fell into jeopardy. That year, the district's highest priority seemed to be to reduce class size.
"I put my foot down - no, we're not going to do this," Mitich said. "I got two board members to support me."
She reminded the governing board of its agreement, and was heard.
When Twin Peaks Elementary School was built in 2001, its budget naturally included a full-time counselor. By that time, each of the district's other 10 elementary schools had one.
"Jan's the type of person that really doesn't do anything half-heartedly," said Holaway, who helped to nominate Mitich. "When she was elected to the board and re-elected, she puts her whole heart into it and even though it's a volunteer role, she takes it very seriously."
Judy Bowers, president-elect of the American School Counselor Association and past president of the association's Arizona chapter, said Mitich has always been an active supporter of funding a good counseling program.
"Jan has made it very clear 'you will not touch the counselors,'" she said.
Bowers' doctoral dissertation was about the district's impressive rise from having no elementary counselors to having one in every school. Bowers is writing a paper that discusses the role Mitich played in that.
"The message will be that there needs to be strong support from the governing board," she said.