Every year, the American School Counselor Association selects one school counselor to be awarded with the title of “School Counselor of the Year”. School counselors of the year are selected based on their ability to create systemic change within the profession through significant leadership, collaboration and advocacy. I had the great honor of being selected as the American School Counselor of the Year in 2018.
My story becoming the American School Counselor of the Year begins at Lawndale Elementary Community Academy located on the westside of Chicago in the North Lawndale neighborhood. To give some context, this is the same neighborhood that Martin Luther King Jr. came to live in during the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr. had come to Chicago to bring attention to poor housing conditions for black residents. After his assassination and the riots that occurred after his death, the neighborhood lost a significant amount of job opportunities. Over time, there was an increase in violent crime, homicide rates, substance abuse and other such factors. (Seligman, A. (2005) Encyclopedia of Chicago: North Lawndale. Retrieved fromhttp://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/901.html)
Factors such as these, lack of adequate school funding and high staff turnover rates all had an impact on the school community at Lawndale Community Academy. When I came to the school in 2015, the school was rated as one of the lowest performing schools in the city. The school served roughly 300 students in grades PK-8 that were 97% black and 96% of families reported as low-income. Though I knew that this work would not be easy, one thing that I held true is that relationships and data-informed practices are fundamental to creating change.
My School Counseling Program:
When developing a school counseling program, it is important to begin with a review of school data (American School Counselor Association, 2019). To help guide my selection of key data points, I used studies conducted by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. In the report titled, “Looking Forward to High School and College: Middle Grade Indicators of Readiness in Chicago Public Schools” there is a key finding that middle school student data can be used to create early indicator systems for high school graduation and post-secondary readiness (Allensworth, E., Gwynne, J., Moore, P., and de la Torre, M. 2014). In particular, this study showed that grades and attendance during freshman year of high school are the greatest predictors for high school graduation. In response to these studies, Chicago Public Schools created metric systems for monitoring student grades and attendance so that we can identify students that are “on-track or off-track” for high school graduation beginning as early as third grade. As part of my school counseling program, I targeted two metrics based off of this research: student attendance and students “on-track” (a combination metric for grades and attendance).
Another data metric that I targeted was also grounded in research by the University of Chicago: Urban Education Institute. UChicago Impact created a survey that assesses school culture and climate in 5 key areas: Effective Leaders, Collaborative Teachers, Involved Families, Supportive Environment, and Ambitious Instruction (UChicago Impact. Retrieved from https://uchicagoimpact.org/our-offerings/5essentials). Researchers found that schools that are strong on at least three of the five essentials were 10 times more likely to show substantial gains in student learning over time than schools weak on three or more of the five essentials. As part of my school counseling program, I targeted the “Involved Families” indicator on this report.
Once I had determined the outcome goals for my school counseling program, I next determined the interventions that I would implement. To target student attendance, I used the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) Model (McIntosh, K. and Goodman, S. 2016). Within this model, we provided tiered interventions for all students, small groups of students and for individual students based on their level of need. In addition, we worked as teams to review student data, identify data trends, determine potential root causes and select interventions. The Tier 1 practices that I implemented to target student attendance were: school-wide incentive events, assemblies and field trips. The Tier 2 practices that I implemented were individualized check-ins for students, small group goal setting sessions and daily phone calls. The Tier 3 practices that I implemented involved individual parent-student meetings and attendance contracts. I also fundraised over $75,000 for new computers, furniture and incentives to help the school look and feel more welcoming.
In addition, to support student attendance, I implemented a number of social and emotional learning interventions. Studies have shown that students that develop positive social and emotional skills, also improve their attachment and attitude towards school (Kendziora, K. and Yoder, N. 2016). The interventions that I implemented to support social and emotional skill development were done in collaboration with a number of community partnerships that I had brought into the school. I assigned community partners to support students at each grade level. At the Tier 1 level, we taught classes on healthy relationships and community violence. At the Tier 2 level, we facilitated small group counseling or provided mentoring services to students that needed additional support. At the Tier 3 level, we facilitated individual counseling or consultation sessions to support the needs of students with the highest level of social and emotional needs. Also, to improve engagement in the school, I developed a number of after school programs including running, basketball and dance.
When targeting the “on-track” metric, I particularly focused on middle school students using college and career readiness interventions. In the report titled “The Forgotten Middle”, it was noted that only 2 out of 10 eighth-grade students are on-track to take courses in high school that will prepare them for college (ACT, Inc., 2008). In Chicago Public Schools, middle students apply for high schools through an application process called GoCPS (gocps.edu). There are many high schools with rigorous academic criteria that students must meet in order to be admitted and in addition there are many career specific programs for students to consider. At the Tier 1 level, I hosted monthly college and career exploration events like school fairs, career fairs, campus visits and field trips. I also provided classroom instruction using Naviance (naviance.com): students set goals, explored careers and postsecondary interests using this online tool. I also hosted school-wide events like college-career week and school PEP rallies. At the Tier 2-3 level, I provided small group and/or individual consultation to students regarding grades, test scores, career interests and high school application processes.
To target the 5 essentials “Involved Families”, I implemented a number of interventions. As an elected official for our school’s Local School Council (a governing board responsible for advising and evaluating the school principal, school budget and improvement plans), I was able to be directly involved with the strategic planning for the school. To support parents in becoming more engaged in the school, I hosted monthly family fun nights like dances and literacy nights. I would also host weekly parent workshops to learn about community resources. I hosted quarterly parent meetings by grade-level to learn about their children’s progress in school. I sent home monthly calendars with important information.
After 3 years of implementing these interventions, we began to see systemic change happen within the school. Student attendance increased by almost 4%. Chronic absenteeism decreased by 61%. The percentage of students on track in middle school nearly doubled, improving from 17% to 46%. The percentage of “Involved Families” improved from “Very Weak” to “Neutral”. The overall rank of the school improved from the lowest level of performance in Chicago Public Schools, Level 3, to a Level 2.
Beyond the school, I also worked to advocate and support the school counseling profession district-wide in Chicago. I served the district as a “Master Counselor” for five years. This is a group of school counselors responsible for presenting best-practices throughout the district, vetting district initiatives and serving as a mentor to new school counselors. I also served on a number of committees to support postsecondary readiness throughout the district and wrote a companion curriculum for middle school Naviance tasks. In addition, I served as a site-supervisor for five school counseling interns throughout my career.
The American School Counselor of the Year Award Process:
Every year, the American School Counselor Association selects one school counselor to be awarded with the title of “School Counselor of the Year”. The process of selection begins with each state-level school counseling association. Each state-level school counseling association determines their own selection process for school counselor of the year and submits the winner for their state to the American School Counselor Association. The winners from each state need to submit a resume, three letters of recommendation and a 5-minute video describing their school counseling program. The application also asks for school counselor nominees answer the following questions:
Give examples of ways you have advocated for the profession throughout your career.
What were two or three of your school counseling program goals last year, and how did you address them? Use data to show your progress in meeting these goals.
Give an example of a particularly effective collaborative effort you spearheaded with a stakeholder population (administrators, faculty, parents and/or the community).
What types of professional development opportunities have you participated in throughout your career, and how was this contributed to your continual learning?
How does your comprehensive school counseling program use advocacy, leadership, systemic change and collaboration to make a difference for students?
Once nominees have submitted their application, a review committee ranks and scores each application, then meets as a group to determine 4-6 school counselors of the year finalists. These finalists are then flown out to Washington D.C. for in-person interviews. The selection committee then votes to determine the individual that will serve as the “School Counselor of the Year”. School counselors of the year are selected based on their ability to create systemic change within the profession through significant leadership, collaboration and advocacy. (American School Counselor Association. Retrieved from: https://www.schoolcounselor.org).
All school counselor of the year nominees, finalists and award winners are flown out to Washington D.C. for an annual school counselor of the year gala and a series of professional advocacy events at the nation’s capitol. During the year that I won, I had the great honor of having my award presented by former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. Mrs. Obama continues to be an advocate for school counselors as part of her REACH Higher Initiative and Better Make Room Campaign (https://www.bettermakeroom.org/our-team/). Her mission is to increase the number of students nation-wide attending college, a 2-year institution or completing a professional training program past high school. Mrs. Obama recognizes that school counselors provide critical support to get this work done.
Reflections on Becoming the School Counselor of the Year:
The opportunities that have come my way following this experience are too numerous to mention. I have transitioned to now work in the district office for Chicago Public Schools, I serve as the President-Elect of our Illinois School Counselor Association and teach as an adjunct instructor at my alma mater DePaul University. I have written articles, facilitated presentations and keynotes, participated in blogs and podcasts all over the nation.
One thing is certain, I have a voice that can be heard in a way that it wasn’t before. So I have to really think about what my message is. And for me, it is all about relationships and community. This work cannot be done alone and change cannot be created single handedly. As a school counselor, I value the central themes of leadership, collaboration, advocacy and systemic change (American School Counselor Association, 2019). I never worked alone and never created change alone. Collaboration is key to create systemic change.
Because school counselors are some of the only school professionals who have access to a wide-variety of information regarding students, they can often be the missing link that helps propel students forward to future success. Though I know school counseling can look different in different countries around the world. School counselors are in a critically important position to help students break down barriers and gain access to college and career options; help students learn skills to successfully navigate social situations and build resiliency; as well as to help students form a strong academic profile.
For me, I aim to shine a light on the profession of school counseling and the work that school counselors do everyday that may not ever be recognized. There is so much good work happening out there. There are people that have created change beyond what I ever have. And, there are people out there doing this work for much longer than I ever have.
This award is never about the winner, it is always about shining a light on the profession and the impact that school counselors have on children all over the world. In the words of Michelle Obama, “[School counselors] have the power to show [our kids] that no matter how alone or afraid they might feel, they are seen, and they are loved.” (Obama, M. (2018) Retrieved from: https://www.schoolcounselor.org/asca/media/asca/SCOY/TRANSCRIPT-MO-2018.pdf)
ACT (2008). “The Forgotten Middle: Ensuring that All Students Are on Target for College and Career Readiness before High School”. Act, Inc.
The ASCA National Model: A Framework for School Counseling Programs, Fourth Edition. (2019). Alexandria, VA: Author.
Elaine M. Allensworth, Julia A. Gwynne, Paul Moore, and Marisa de la Torre (2014). “Looking Forward to High School and College: Middle Grade Indicators of Readiness in Chicago Public Schools”. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.
Kent McIntosh and Steve Goodman. (2016) Integrated Multi-Tiered Systems of Support: Blending RtI and PBIS. Kent McIntosh and Steve Goodman. The Guilford Press.
Kimberly Kendziora and Nick Yoder (2016). When Districts Support and Integrate Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Findings From an Ongoing Evaluation of District Wide Implementation of SEL. American Institutes for Research.
Obama, Michelle (2018). Transcript: Michelle Obama Remarks at American School Counselor Association's 2018 School Counselor of the Year Award.
Seligman, Amanda. (2005) Encyclopedia of Chicago: North Lawndale. Site: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/901.html
UChicago Impact: The 5 Essentials System. Website: https://uchicagoimpact.org/our-offerings/5essentials
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