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Q and A: 2018 School Counselor of the Year Kirsten Perry

Critical Care

This summer has been particularly busy for Kirsten Perry of Chicago Public School’s Lawndale Community Academy. Along with the keynote speeches, panel presentations, and media interviews that come with being named the 2018 School Counselor of the Year, Perry has been busy prepping for her fourth year at Lawndale, which serves 260 pre-K through eighth-grade students. She was recognized by the American School Counselor Association for her work advocating for students, addressing academic and social/emotional development, and encouraging college and career readiness. Perry spoke with ASBJ Associate Editor Michelle Healy about her successful efforts to improve student attendance and achievement at Lawndale and the work of school counselors.

Did you always want to be a school counselor?
I was kind of a lost soul in my youth. I didn’t know what I wanted and was really consumed in all the wrong things. I got involved in substance abuse at a very young age; had my son when I was 19. It wasn’t until my late 20s when I really started to think that I wanted to do something that has meaning. The pull [to counseling] was because I had risen above my personal problems and felt I wanted to do something to give back and help kids like myself.

What’s a common misperception about school counselors?
That we provide clinical therapy. We don’t. We can check in on students and determine if they need that level of support. If they do, we match them with a therapist or help a family find resources.

What's the actual work of a school counselor?
We work in three domains: academic, personal/social and emotional learning (SEL), and college and career development. We support academic skills—and that can be organizational skill development, executive functioning skills, what it means to be a student—and how a student acts and behaves. SEL is important in today’s society, whether you work in a high-crime community like Lawndale, or in more affluent communities. At my school, I’d say about 90 percent of my students have experienced some type of trauma, sometimes multiple types. School counselors have specialized training in this area. Also, people often think of college and career development strictly in terms of high school, but we help students begin to understand the connection between grades and attendance to career at a young age and build on that as they grow.

How are you improving student achievement at Lawndale?
We’ve focused on several key areas: One is student attendance and putting into place tiered systems to support attendance. I’m part of our attendance team, and we created interventions that targeted all students, small groups of students, and individual students. As a result, attendance has gone up about 4 percent and chronic absenteeism has gone down about 65 percent. With students in school more, there’s more exposure to curriculum, which impacts test scores and grades. Attendance has improved, but we still have a way to go. We've also focused on increasing parent-engagement with the school and creating more social/emotional peer interventions, or restorative justice interventions, for students. With that we've seen a reduction in student suspensions and discipline problems. By creating an environment where students feel supported, they are more open to learning.

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