Kirsten Perry has heard her share of painful stories of loss, hardship, and misfortune as a public school counselor on the west side of Chicago. But she is even more deeply moved by the resilience of her students and the families and vibrance of the community around them.
On Friday, Perry received the national 2018 School Counselor of the Year award during a celebration at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) also honored one school counselor from each state, along with Perry.
The awardees gathered on stage as former first lady Michelle Obama presented the national award, giving her first televised speech since her time in the White House.
“We know where the real work of changing kids’ lives happens,” Obama said. “It happens on the ground, in classrooms, and communities, and in those face-to-face, heart-to-heart interactions between our kids and caring educators and counselors, like the folks on this stage.”
Days later, Perry said she was still in shock at meeting the former first lady.
“I’m still processing the whole thing,” she said with a laugh. “Like, did that really happen?”
Obama revisited her promise to continue the work she started with the Reach Higher Initiative, which encourages students to pursue education beyond high school. She was joined by several celebrities and leaders at the celebration, including ASCA Executive Director Richard Wong, reality cooking show host Ted Allen, Reach Higher Executive Director Eric Waldo and former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King.
Reflecting on anxious times for the nation, Obama encouraged those gathered to remain hopeful.
“You all have the power to teach our kids what it means to go high when others go low,” Obama said.
She introduced Perry as “a perfect example” of that work. After Perry began working at Lawndale Community Academy in 2015, the Pre-K-8 school rose to level two academic standing among Chicago’s public schools. The school was at level three, the lowest in the district, for the five years preceding that.
Lawndale has also seen a 61 percent drop in chronic absenteeism since Perry began. She has launched numerous initiatives and programs, including everything from a running club to gathering students in “peace circles.”
Peace circles are a place where students in conflict gather, discuss their issues, and work together toward a peaceful solution. Perry said it is part of a restorative justice approach to addressing student beavhior she is working to implement.
She explained in an interview that past approaches have been more punitive, punishing behaviors with suspensions and other disciplinary actions.
“Restorative justice is more about building community, getting to the root cause of a student’s behavior, and working through the lens of providing support,” Perry said.
She said that Lawndale still has much to learn when it comes to restorative justice, but that the school is seeing some success as staff members work toward the new system. At times, Perry said teachers and parents are involved in the peace circles or resolution efforts.
Two students also spoke at the event about the personal impact Perry made on their lives. Student Kyla Evans said Perry helped her control her anger and encouraged her to stop skipping school. And even though Evans is now enrolled as a 9th grader at another school, she still comes to visit Perry.
“I know she will keep pushing me to go to school, believe in myself, and think about my future,” Evans said. “Miss Perry shows every day that she cares about all the kids at Lawndale.”
Perry said crime, poverty, and the lingering effects of systemic racism facing Lawndale create challenges from day to day. But she also said she finds joy in watching her students transform and witnessing a strong, vibrant community fight for a better future.
“I’ve only been working in Lawndale two-and-a-half years,” Perry said. “I feel like I’m getting too much credit compared to some people who are so deepy invested in the community. They’ve been working and fighting this battle for decades.”
In her acceptance speech, Perry said school counselors are advocates, collaborators, and systemic change agents who can be a voice for the the voiceless. She hopes her students also find their own voices along the way.
Kirsten Perry, left, the 2018 School Counselor of the Year, and former first lady Michelle Obama, celebrate with other school counselors after the 2018 School Counselor of the Year awards ceremony on Feb. 2 in Washington.
—Cheriss May/Sipa via AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.