AVON — Ron Swier was recently honored as South Dakota’s School Counselor of the Year — which he admits was interesting considering he graduated from a high school that didn’t have a counselor.
“I went my first 10 years (as a student) at the Franklin school just outside Madison. We consolidated with Chester in 1966, when I was a junior in high school,” he said.
“Then, the Chester school had a fire, and the superintendent had to make a quick decision. I attended school in the old Franklin building during my senior year but graduated from Chester.”
And what about planning for college and a career after graduation?
“Neither Franklin nor Chester had a counselor,” he said. “I don’t recall how many schools had counselors. Back then, many students went to a teacher or coach as mentors or if they had a problem.”
After high school graduation, Swier earned his bachelor’s degree in education. He went on to earn his master’s degrees in administration and counseling, serving schools across eastern South Dakota.
He currently serves as K-12 school counselor for the Avon School District’s 240 students. Last month, he was honored during the American School Counselor Association’s (ASCA) celebration in Washington, D.C.
Swier was recognized for outstanding service to his students. He has promoted a “Character Counts” program in the grade school and college/career preparation in the high school.
In addition, he counsels students on personal issues. He has also helped students obtain financial assistance to pay for their education — in some cases, the entire amount of the bill.
“Last year, we had 10 of the 15 graduating students receive a total of $270,000 for their education,” he said. “Four students received a full ride through school.”
Swier works to ensure his students are aware of every available opportunity. As part of that effort, Mount Marty College financial aid director Ken Kocer visits the Avon school to talk about scholarships and financial aid.
“I don’t do the application for them, but I make sure they get the information,” Swier said of his students.
In addition, Swier invites Avon graduates to return and talk about their past experiences and how they prepared for their further education and career.
Swier’s dedication to his students and their welfare led to his selection as South Dakota’s Counselor of the Year. The recent recognition in Washington was an education in itself for him.
“The first night, we had a big social, about 2½ hours, where you met the other counselors,” he said. “The next day, 42 out of the 50 states were represented by their counselor at the awards ceremony. My family was there to share the moment.”
For Swier, the two-day event allowed him to meet fellow counselors who face vastly different issues in their schools.
“We have different issues and also some of the same issues,” he said. “There were things like vaping and bullying that are big issues everywhere, but we take some of those problems more seriously in the smaller schools than they do at bigger schools.”
During the second day’s activities, the outstanding counselors visited the U.S. Department of Education in Washington. They rotated among four mini-sessions, 20 minutes in length, dealing with various issues.
As part of the recognition, ASCA spotlighted each state school counselor of the year. The counselors were recognized for advocating for students and for their dedication to students’ academic, social, emotional and career development.
Even without benefiting from a counselor during his own school days, Swier said he has always strongly believed in the importance of the position.
“I’ve done the whole gamut of education,” he said. “I’ve been principal, plus always in a small school, I did counseling in addition to my administrative duties.”
Swier’s career has included some interesting stepping stones. One school hired him as counselor while he was completing his master’s degree. At another school, he stepped into the role when the counselor developed health issues and required an extended leave of absence.
Regardless of the situation, he has remained focused on one thing — the students.
“As a teacher, you saw the problems that kids were facing and that they often weren’t getting the help they needed,” he said. “I also saw counselors who weren’t helping kids and were just doing their own thing. I was motivated to do a better job.”
Swier said he was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote about the function of education. In that regard, Swier strives to help his students develop a positive character that will last a lifetime.
Swier had considered retirement in the past but remained in education, particularly counseling. He and his wife, Carol — also an educator — wanted to move to Avon where their children and grandchildren resided.
The Swiers contacted Superintendent Tom Culver about any openings in the Avon school district. One staff member had taken an administrative position in the system, which opened up teaching and counseling jobs.
The Swiers applied and were hired for the two part-time positions. They are now in their third year with the Avon schools.
Ron Swier has brought his lifetime philosophy to Avon, which begins with building a strong foundation among grade school students.
“I really push Character Counts, which is offered through the 4-H organization and has six pillars in it,” he said. “We learn things like being trustworthy, respectful and responsible — doing things fairly and treating people fairly. We spend a lot of time working on character.”
For high school students, Swier initiated a student-of-the-quarter contest, calculating the award on grade-point average (GPA) and attendance for the quarter. The winner receives a designated school parking spot along with a poster with the student’s photo displayed in the school lunchroom.
Looking back at his career, Swier said education has changed a great deal with more paperwork and an emphasis on content standards.
As for students, they have also changed over the years, he said. Today’s kids are more advanced in school than previous generations, he noted.
“I think now, what kids are learning in fourth grade, we probably learned in eighth grade,” he said. “They’re exposed to so many things.”
Some of those things present new challenges unlike those faced by previous generations, Swier said. In school, he talks with students about bullying and inappropriate behavior, both in person and online.
“Social media has changed so many things, and there has been so much texting,” he said. “When you go to a party and somebody takes a picture, you have no idea where (the photo) is going.”
Besides his recent award, Swier was a finalist for the South Dakota Governor’s Volunteer of the Year Award. He is a member of ASCA, the South Dakota School Counselor Association and the South Central Cooperative Counselors’ Chapter.
When it comes to student success, Swier stressed the importance of support from family and friends.
“If kids know their parents are at their ball games and music events, it’s really important to them,” he said. “The kids may act like they don’t care and they won’t admit it, but they will sure know you are there.”
At Avon and other communities, Swier has discovered a family atmosphere supportive of the schools.
“With the smaller schools, you know the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles,” he said. “You see how the kids are raised, and that’s why I really like the small schools. I’ve enjoyed every one of them.”
Find out more information on ASCA’s School Counselor of the Year celebration at http://schoolcounselor.org/scoy.
Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.