In the three years since she arrived at Lawndale Community Academy, school counselor Kirsten Perry (MEd ’11) has implemented a host of programs for students and their families at the pre-K–8 school. Lawndale’s principal credits her with raising the school from level three to level two in the Chicago Public Schools ranking system. In recognition, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) named her the 2018 School Counselor of the Year.
“It is honestly the highest honor for school counselors in the land,” says Melissa Ockerman, associate professor of counseling, who noted that Perry also was named the Illinois School Counselor of the Year. Perry was among the first students to graduate from the COE’s master’s program in counseling after it was aligned with the ASCA’s Transform School Counseling Initiative, which teaches counselors that they should be central to solving school problems. Perry’s systemic, sustainable strategies demonstrate the effectiveness of the approach, Ockerman says: “She is living proof that this kind of work is necessary and effective.”
When Perry arrived at Lawndale, located in a low-income community on Chicago’s West Side, attendance was 90.7 percent. Now it’s close to 94 percent and rising. Perry forged partnerships and built trust with parents through weekly informational workshops. She established social-emotional instruction in all classrooms and incentivized good behavior. She recruited community partners and raised more than $50,000 to support her programs. She bolstered college and career exploration. This past year, she expanded into wellness, bringing in a healthy food program that supplies students with fresh fruit and vegetables.
“The method to my madness is collaboration. I don’t do anything in isolation,” Perry says. Her student council is a “little army” that helps create activities. Parents help set up workshops led by community managers whom Perry coordinates. Perry’s attendance and behavioral initiatives are schoolwide efforts.
Perry did not arrive at Lawndale, her “dream school,” by chance. A troubled teen, she became involved with a gang member who fathered the son she had at age 18. In her mid-20s, she earned a bachelor’s degree, then came to DePaul in search of a career that gave her journey meaning.
“My life experience all goes into counseling. It gives me strength and perspective,” she says. Her students are willing to open up with her. She can relate to those parents who are coping with challenges such as low-wage jobs, gang influences or single parenthood. “I know what it’s like to have my son’s father in jail.”
Perry credits her mentors at the COE with giving her confidence in her abilities and helping her to realize that she can change student outcomes and achievement. “These are very charismatic, bright, smart students. All they need are the same opportunities that other people have.”
Perry was honored at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Feb. 2, where former First Lady Michelle Obama introduced her and presented the award.