By B.C. Manion
Leena Hasbini is seated at her desk, when a student in a ROTC uniform, approaches.
He wants to know if he can get a fee waiver for a college admission test.
She asks him a few questions, clicks her fingers across her keyboard, and in moments has him set up for the waiver he needs.
A little while later, a mother drops in to Wharton High’s Student Success Center. She wants to know how her twin sons can qualify for a Bright Futures scholarship.
Hasbini sets to work immediately, answering the woman’s questions and printing out information for her to take home.
The Wharton High assistant teacher then shifts her attention to a group of students who recently took a field trip to a college. She wants to see what they thought of the visit and whether any of them is interested in attending the college.
Those interactions – over roughly a half-hour — offer a glimpse into Hasbini’s daily quest to help students plug in to educational opportunities that may change their lives.
Her work to expand students’ horizons recently led to the 22-year-old being named Instructional Support Employee of the Year for Hillsborough County public schools.
“I didn’t expect it at all. I was somewhat in shock. I felt like other people deserved it,” said Hasbini, who began working at Wharton when she was 19.
“How do you differentiate from what I do and what a custodian does and what a school secretary does? How do you figure that out?”
She may be humble about the honor, but she’s enjoying the recognition.
“My house looks like a florist shop,” she said.
“It’s so amazing. I feel like they feel like I’ve cured cancer or something. I didn’t do anything that special. I just come to work and I do my job and I make it work.”
She’s pleased to bring honor to Wharton.
“I think it brings a lot of positive recognition to my school,” said Hasbini, who graduated from Newsome High at 17, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of South Florida at 19 and will receive her master’s degree in May.
For now, Hasbini plans to focus on school guidance work, but ultimately, she pictures herself in an administrative role at the district level. As a finalist for the district award, she met with schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
“When I interviewed with the superintendent, I told her: ‘Twenty years from now, I want your job.’ ”
While her official title is assistant teacher, around Wharton she’s known as the Success Center manager.
The center offers students assistance, including career readiness, career interest inventories and college applications. It has books students can check out to prepare for SAT and ACT tests and there’s a filing cabinet full of practice exams.
Hasbini said she works on the college readiness piece of Wharton’s school grade.
“Basically, I work with the seniors that either haven’t taken the SAT or the ACT or their scores are right below the cutoff and that impacts our school grade. The more kids that we have that go above the cutoff, the more points we get.”
She’s relentless in pushing students to take the test or to take it over. Last year, 98 percent of the juniors signed up for the test and 68 percent took it. This year, the goal is for 99 percent to sign up, with a completion rate of at least 75 percent.
Hasbini said she understands how education can change a life because her experiences have changed her. She said Joanne Brabham, her guidance counselor at Newsome High, was her hero during high school – and still is.
“She’s a really good motivator and cheerleader and supporter. When nobody else believed that I could do it, she said, ‘don’t listen to them. You can do it.’
“She encouraged me when a lot of other people didn’t,” Hasbini said.
“She just made a huge impact on my life and really reframed how I view education, how you can really make a difference in somebody’s life and how that change can multiply,” Hasbini added.
Besides helping her at Newsome, Brabham – who used to work at Wharton – was instrumental in helping Hasbini get her job.
“I tell her: ‘You helped me so now I can go and help other students and they’re going to help other people.’ It’s like paying it forward,” Hasbini said.
Seventeen-year-old Selena Fernandez, who transferred to Wharton last year, said Hasbini inspired her to change her attitude about school.
“When I came out here I was really lost and I was really unmotivated. I was super depressed. I really didn’t want to be in school at all. I was about to give up completely.
“I felt alone. When you come to a big school like this, you feel really lost.
“Now, I love Wharton because of her. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be in school. I was just about to give up,” said Fernandez, who wants to study broadcast journalism. “She really motivates me.”
Fernandez said Hasbini has helped her line up public speaking engagements that give her exposure and help her network.
In recommending Hasbini, Wharton High’s nominating committee praised her character and work habits. They describe her as “a highly intelligent, insightful and caring individual who approaches her work with an incredible amount of dedication and commitment.”
“When she discovered that our students didn’t have adequate test preparation materials for the SAT and ACT, she set out to build a lending resource library, not only writing and receiving a $700 grant through our school’s PTSA to purchase brand-new books, but also soliciting and attaining donations of materials to give away to students who truly needed them.”
Hasbini stepped in when Wharton’s college and career counselor took an emergency medical leave, “to make sure that our students and parents received the guidance and support they needed,” the nominating committee wrote. The committee also praised her for organizing events, recruiting volunteers, assisting classroom teachers and preparing materials for parents and students.
“Perhaps Leena’s most significant accomplishment is the development of our Edline Guidance page,” the committee wrote. “She has devoted the past three years to creating and maintaining an invaluable resource for our school community that matches that of professional for-profit organizations.”
You can see Hasbini’s handiwork at www.edline.net/pages/Wharton_High_School/CollegeCareerCounselor.