For as long as Anita Shirley ’99, ’03, ’07 can remember, she wanted to influence the lives of students. Growing up, she watched her mom run a daycare, which factored into her decision to pursue a career in education. The impulse to make an impact evolved with her positions—from teacher, to school counselor, to administrator—and resulted in her recent designation as a 2022 California Association of School Counselors Administrator of the Year.
Prior to her current position as an assistant principal at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Eastvale, California, Shirley worked as a school counselor coordinator in the Corona-Norco Unified School District. One of her former colleagues called her to deliver the news.
“I thought he was just calling to ask me a question—I wasn’t expecting it,” she remembered. “It means so much to me because the work I was doing in that position was always about making school counselors’ jobs and lives easier. It was an honor, but I feel like I received it on behalf of the counselors I worked with. They were the ones on the front lines working with students.”
Making a difference
As a coordinator, Shirley managed the placement of K-12 school counselors throughout the district. In addition to her day-to-day administrative duties, she spearheaded projects that streamlined processes.
In California, public high school students must successfully complete an array of courses in various subjects—known as A-G requirements—to meet state college admissions requirements. School counselors ensure that students are on track to graduate by monitoring their progress.
Shirley noticed that the process required counselors to print and calculate this information by hand, so she partnered with the district’s information technology department to develop a digital tool that automated the computing process. Now, counselors only have to verify that the information is correct.
“The scope of work I was doing was something that could easily be adapted to other districts,” she said, noting that she shared her experiences at conferences to spread information to other educators.
Making counselors’ jobs easier improves their ability to serve students, which is always the end goal for Shirley. As an assistant principal, she takes the same approach—she is known as the “skateboard mom” because she lets students leave their skateboards in her office during the school day. They notice when she’s gone and regularly ask about her life.
Her desire to get to know students on a deeper level stems from her time as a school counselor and coordinator. “There are so many things school counselors can do for students in order to change their lives,” she said. “They can influence decisions that students make, completely changing the path that they take.”
Eleanor Roosevelt High School is one of the largest comprehensive high schools in the state, serving more than 4,600 students. As a result, the school’s many assistant principals oversee multiple projects and departments. For Shirley, that means administering the dual enrollment program, organizing the master schedule, and facilitating School Site Council. She is also the department chair of counseling and history and supervises the functions of the College and Career Institute, and registrar’s, health, and front offices.
She assumed the position in April 2021, and the COVID-19 pandemic adds another layer to her work. Since returning to in-person learning, Shirley noticed that students are quick to react—a side effect from being physically separated from their classmates and teachers for an extended period of time.
“Because they were on the internet for so long, they could hide behind a screen,” she said. “They don’t have the coping skills to navigate life events, like a breakup or gossip. Now, they’re next to the person who was talking about them and have to interact with that person. They’re struggling.”
Many students are dealing with depression and anxiety, and mental health services are overwhelmed. As a result, students and parents are turning to schools for help. Alternately, teachers are reorienting themselves to interacting with students and teaching in physical classrooms again. Through it all, Shirley is trying to understand their experiences and help to navigate them. “I believe there is light and hope, we just have to keep working,” she said.
Daily, Shirley sees the parallels between being an assistant principal and a school counselor. Both jobs require educators to be perceptive, compassionate, and motivated—skills she first developed as a student at the University of Redlands.
“You have to see the needs that students and their families have and work to meet those needs,” she said. “It can be as simple as sitting down with them and having a conversation about how school is going and asking questions. It’s about the relationships you build, finding your voice, and being an advocate.”
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