James Okoro looks back on his early teen years and can imagine himself dropping out of school, landing in prison or meeting an untimely death — the path that too many African American males follow.

“I was headed down the wrong path,” said Okoro, 17, a senior at Charles H. Flowers High School in Prince George’s County. “I’m not going to say I was bad, but I was a little rascal.”

Okoro said a mentoring program with William Clay, his elementary school counselor, made him realize he didn’t want his life to take a wrong turn.

“I would say he played a big part in the young man that I am today,” said Okoro, who has plans to attend Coppin State University.

Clay, who has served as a school counselor for 14 years, was recently honored for his work with students such as Okoro, receiving the 2012 Marcus Foster Distinguished Educator award from the National Alliance of Black School Educators, a nonprofit that aims to improve academic achievement among black students. Clay said he was “amazed” when he learned about the recognition.

William Clay won the Marcus Foster Distinguished Educator Award, a rarity for a school counselor. (Courtesy of William Clay)

Quentin Lawson, NABSE’s executive director, said his organization gives the award to “change agents” who have dedicated themselves to public education. Lawson, who has worked for the nonprofit for 17 years, said he does not recall another school counselor receiving the educator award during that time.

“It just validates how important school counselors are in the lives of children and why they are essential in the educational process,” said Clay, who works at Charles Carroll Middle School.

Clay said he decided at a young age that he wanted to become a school counselor.

His mother was diagnosed with skin cancer when he was 8 years old. And after his parents divorced a couple of years later, he took care of his mother until she died when he was in middle school.

When his mother got sick, Clay said he talked to one of his elementary school teachers. After his mother died, Clay reached out to his middle school counselor for guidance.

“I went through a phase where I was depressed . . . I didn’t know how to deal with it,” Clay said. “Boys are not taught to deal with emotions. We are taught to keep emotions in.”

But Clay said his experience laid the foundation for his future career.

“Because of what I went through as a child I knew I would be able to help other men get through what they went through as a child,” he said.

Prince George’s County schools officials said Clay’s work has had a significant impact.

“The accomplishments of Dr. William Clay are to be commended,” Interim School Superintendent Alvin L. Crawley said in a statement announcing the award last month. “Dr. Clay is an excellent example of how important school counselors are to the success of our students.”