Byline: Serena Markstrom The Register-Guard
Michelle D'Agostino had just completed her master's degree in New Hampshire when she decided she needed a change of scenery.
A former college runner who still hits the road, she was on leave from teaching middle school biology in Maine while earning her master's. But instead of going back to her job, she chose to come to Eugene, in part because of its reputation as a running community and the legacy of Steve Prefontaine.
That was in July, and a month later she was the new counselor for the United Way-funded Student Assistance Program, a drug abuse prevention and early intervention program that operates out of Kelly and Shasta middle schools.
"It's a big shift, but I was very excited in the beginning to take this position," she says of her transition from East Coast biology teacher to West Coast counselor.
The Student Assistance Program works in cooperation with teachers and school administrators to improve student behavior and academic performance. It began as a program for adolescents with family histories of drug abuse, but has evolved into a resource for all kids facing a host of problems that could lead to substance abuse.
Shasta went without a counselor for one year due to budget cuts, but this year the program was able to hire D'Agostino after a grant from the PacificSource Charitable Foundation added to the $44,000 in United Way money.
Since August, she has been working to meet as many students as she can and make herself visible as a resource to any student who needs extra one-on-one attention. She circulates during lunch periods, striking up conversations, shooting hoops and playing with students in Shasta's newly opened game room.
Caroline Dunn is the Student Assistance Program's supervisor and has more than 20 years experience in youth drug prevention.
"To have a private place to talk is so important," Dunn says. Part of making that private place accessible to students is the counselor's approach. "Michelle has an easy, youthful way about her. I think that's an advantage."
In addition to running track for Princeton University, and after getting her master's degree in education, D'Agostino, 29, started the first professional football league for women in Maine, where she played wide receiver and kicker on one of its teams.
D'Agostino says her background in sports helps her relate to students.
"If you are lazy in athletics, you will make mistakes," is what she tells the middle schoolers. It's the same with homework, she says. "They already have the strategies ingrained in them, they just don't know it."
When she had a classroom full of students in Maine, she …