BLOOMFIELD, NJ — It came as a surprise to departing school counselor Sybilree Fitzgerald of Bloomfield’s Fairview Elementary School on her last day, Thursday, Dec. 23, when Principal Ginamarie Mignone told her there was a situation on the playground.
“I thought I had to talk to a student,” Fitzgerald said.
She did not. Instead, she discovered flowers, balloons and a banner, along with all the schoolchildren holding handmade cards, queued in a line to say goodbye and, with bear hugs, wish her well. After 12 years as the Fairview school counselor, Fitzgerald was relocating to Atlanta.
“My Fairview family was out there,” she later said in her office. “I totally wasn’t expecting that.”
Fitzgerald, who grew up in Paterson, worked in television prior to getting a master’s degree at Montclair State University to become a school counselor. Her new job will be as a high school counselor. She has 20 years of counseling experience, having also worked in New Jersey’s Englewood School District and in Tennessee.
“I believe it was God calling,” she said of her departure. “I wanted to relocate there anyway, but not now, in 15 years; I’m 51.”
But she has family in Georgia and her daughter was recently accepted to school there, she explained.
Fitzgerald said there is no single way to be a school counselor. She has worn many hats: mother, aunt, cheerleader.
“I believe the component of mental health is essential in education,” she said. “If a student is not emotionally prepared, you can’t address the academic part. You have to educate the whole person: academically, mentally, emotionally and socially.”
She saw student depression and academic recession increase because of remote learning.
“The kids are afraid of COVID,” she continued. “Learning is not primary to them now. In their minds, they’re playing out multiple what-ifs. What happens if they get sick? If mommy gets sick?”
But one benefit of virtual learning, she pointed out, was an increase of parental communication and participation with the school.
Fitzgerald was especially proud of creating Career Day, an annual event where parents in various professions discussed their work. It was a big improvement over having a stranger talk to an auditorium filled with children, she said.
“I remember the staff was apprehensive,” she said. “But it was a great home, school and community connection.”
Her advice to students: “You can’t control the world — only what you do.”