An Interview with Kirsten Perry, 2018 School Counselor of the Year
An Interview with Kirsten Perry, 2018 School Counselor of the YearCrystal Barrick, Assistant Director, Communications
Kirsten Perry has been named the 2018 School Counselor of the Year by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). A school counselor for six years—the last two at Lawndale Community Academy in Chicago, IL—Perry had plenty of wisdom to share with All Access this winter. In the interview below, she underlines the importance of balancing students' academic and socioemotional needs, forging community partnerships, and listening deeply to students, their families, and school colleagues.
Why did you decide to become a school counselor?
My reasoning for becoming a school counselor is very personal. I was a troubled youth. I got into substance abuse at a young age. As a result, my middle and high school years were a bumpy ride. I had to attend summer school in order to graduate high school. My parents, in attempt to help me, tried to reconnect me with what they believed was my true identity: someone who wanted to do good for others. So they sent me to live in a village in Kenya, with a Kenyan family, where I taught English and math at a secondary school. I was in Kenya for about 4 months; though life-changing, this experience did not get me back on track when I returned.
Upon my return, I got pregnant at the age of 18. My son's father, who was heavily involved in street life, left me a single mother. He spent most of my son's life in and out of prison. But thanks to the support of my family and friends, I was able to put my life back on track. I received my undergraduate degree in my mid-twenties. My major was the history of world religion.
Though this major helped me to form my spiritual identity, my career was still unclear to me. I was around 30 years old when I decided to go back to school to become a school counselor. I felt unfulfilled, and felt I had so much more to give. I chose school counseling specifically because I wanted to be able to help youth like myself stay on-track from a young age. I felt I could identify with them and might be able to help. I chose to work in North Lawndale because I simply feel it is my duty to serve the underserved. I would never feel fulfilled in life otherwise.
What unique role do you think middle school counselors play in supporting students’ college readiness? How can middle school counselors work to ensure that all students, no matter their background, have the opportunity to access college?
Middle school is critical for college readiness, and school counselors have unique training to ensure that all students have access to college. First, we provide direct instruction to all middle school students to increase awareness of high school: graduation requirements, GPA, SAT/ACT, honors courses, AP courses, extracurricular activities, course offerings, etc. It is important that students know what all of these terms mean. beginning in middle school, so they are prepared for success the day they set foot in high school. And it's important that students know the importance of grades and attendence—and how they impact college readiness—before high school. Studies show student attendance and grades tend to slip freshman year, leading to lower GPA and increased risk for dropping out.
Not only do students need to understand the academic expectations of high school, they also need to understand the social expectations. There can be a lot more independence in high school, so students need to be prepared to manage their work and time. Middle school counselors provide direct instruction to help students improve their habits: time-management, organizational skills, goal-setting, prioritizing, etc. These habits, made strong in middle school, can lead to better outcomes in high school and beyond. And these topics can be relevant to different students in different ways—for example, for students who might be expected to work or babysit throughout high school. Middle school counselors can also support students by helping them plan for their transition to high school and set goals for freshman year.
As a middle school counselor, I work to improve student awareness of college and careers. It is important for middle school students tounderstand what college is and how college connects to future careers. This allows them to create goals and have a good idea of their individualized course plans going forward.
Aside from college and career awareness, I also do prevention work to address topics related to dropping out—sex education, drug prevention, and gang prevention. The goal is to get students thinking about their futures, seeing how their work and choices in middle school are preparing them for success in high school.
Middle school counselors also work with parents. For many families, college may seem unattainable. School counselors can help families learn more about financial planning, grants, and scholarships. The sooner college financial planning starts, the better. School counselors can break myths about college access for families that do not believe college is a real option, or for families that do not believe there is a benefit to going to college. Also, school counselors can connect families that do not speak English to resources and serve as an advocate on their behalf.
Can you say a little about how you improved student attendance at Lawndale?
Over the past two years, we have improved student attendance by 3.2% at Lawndale Community Academy. We make sure our attendance goals are posted throughout the school and can be heard each day over the intercom or from staff.
We accomplished these gains through a three-tiered approach: We created interventions that targeted all students, small groups of students, and individual students. To address the whole school, we improved all mass communication to families, hosted family workshops, and created school-wide incentives that students or classrooms could earn, like field trips or parties. To address small groups of students, we created a "check-in" program where staff members were assigned to students to check-in with each student each day (these staff members are not teachers). The "check-in" staff call home if a student is absent and allow students to cash in points for prizes if they come to school each day. To address individual students, we have individual meetings with families and students. We require that these families complete a contract and a plan for improvement (or we come up with a plan for support, depending on the student's needs). We also work with our partnership organization called "A Knock at Midnight," who does home visits for us.
How did you go about establishing community partnerships with your school, and how have these partnerships affected your students?
I have established about eight community partnerships to work with students and families at Lawndale Community Academy over the past two years. Initially, I saw a clear need for social and emotional support, as evidenced by school data and voiced by school/community members. I knew this was not something I could address as the only school counselor in the building, especially working in a high-need community. Through attending vendor fairs, speaking with my administration, network office, and community partners, and sometimes even just cold-calling organizations, I was able to find organizations willing to work at my school at minimal or no cost. The organizations I have secured provide direct social and emotional learning (SEL) instruction to students, mentoring services, small groups counseling, and individual therapy.
And not only do these organizations work with my students, but they also provide workshops for parents on a range of SEL topics. I have established a regular Wednesday workshop for parents to learn from our partners about what students are learning about.
Since the establishment of these partnerships, most all of our students that need individualized services or group services are in fact receiving services. All of our students receive direct SEL instruction. Over the past two years, we have seen a significant reduction in student behavior at the school. It is difficult to say the exact number because we have been using new tools to monitor behavior, but the change is evident throughout the school. For example, there are very few fights in the middle school, when in the past, it was monthly, sometimes weekly. Though we cannot say that our school partnerships are the only reason for this improvement, there is no doubt that they have contributed to this change.
How do you balance addressing students’ academic and social/emotional needs?
In many ways, student academic and social/emotional needs can overlap. It can be very much like a venn-diagram, where some topics can be purely academic and others purely social-emotional, and some can be a combination of both. For example, test-taking stress can be both academic and social-emotional.
As a school counselor, I pay attention to each domain and recognize the potential for overlap. For example, if I am having students set an academic goal for the school year, I will also ask students to consider any social-emotional factors that might get in the way of achieving their goal. On the other hand, if I am having students consider their personal values, I might also ask them how their values can help them academically.
What advice do you have for first-year counselors?
I always tell my interns the same thing (which was something told to me once by a professor): "You will learn the first third of what you need to know during your coursework; you will learn the second third of what you need to know during your internship; and you will learn the final third of what you need to know during your first year as a professional school counselor." In other words, do not feel like you need to know everything. You are still learning, and it is okay not to know what to do sometimes.
If you are the only school counselor in your school, like I am, I recommend making a list of school counselors at other schools that you can call if you need advice, have questions, or want to share resources.
I also recommend sitting down with your principal before the school year starts, and periodically throughout the year, to discuss your program goals and expectations. This has always worked for me. Rather than wonder, I always ask to hear feedback so I can continually improve. Be open to any feedback—there is nothing wrong with making mistakes. We all do!
Finally, listen to the staff, students, parents, and your community. They will tell you what the school needs and guide your program. The first year is definitely a year of listening and taking notes. You will never have to wonder if what you are doing is right for the school, if you listen—especially to the students! They will tell it to you direct.