Kristen Perry is the school counselor at Lawndale Community Academy in Chicago, a pre-K through 8th-grade school that, in 2015, earned the lowest possible ranking in the district. Through extraordinary dedication and service, she won the 2018 Counselor of the Year award.
The Counselor of the Year award is given by the American School Counselor Association. The award, according to the organization's website, "honors professionals who devote their careers to advocating for the nation’s students and addressing their academic and social/emotional development."
Perry connects with students at a deep level. In an interview with The College Board, she explains: "I was a troubled youth. I got into substance abuse at a young age . . . [and] got pregnant at the age of 18."
Perry's career as a counselor is only six years old, but she is clearly already having an outstanding impact. Willard Willette, Lawndale's principal, said that her work has been an important factor in the school's gains over the past several years.
Unceasing energy and persistence are hallmarks of Perry's work, but they aren't the only reason she was selected for the award. After all, educators everywhere are working tirelessly on behalf of children.
At Lawndale, she focused on implementing a variety of practices associated with restorative justice. This included the creation of "peace circles," for students to learn to communicate and resolve conflict. She also brought police officers in to connect with students around topics that are important to their community.
The central tenet of restorative justice, a movement that seeks to provide an alternative route to traditional criminal justice practices, is that all stakeholders involved with a crime—the accused and victim alike—participate in a collaborative process to repair the harm caused.
In recent years it has gained traction in schools as leaders have searched for innovative ways to address misbehavior, as opposed to issuing traditional out-of-school suspensions. Perry's efforts to bring these practices to Lawndale assuredly helped strengthen bonds between students as they practiced the essential virtue of forgiveness.
According to The Chicago Tribune, student Kyla Evans said of Perry, "I would get in a lot of fights, too. Ms. Perry helped us to work on ourselves."
The state of IL offers guidance for educators who are attempting this long and difficult work. It is undoubtedly a challenge, but helping students to work on themselves as people is work that will pay dividends for years to come.
School counselors can play a critical role in strengthening what the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture's James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson, call the "moral ecology" of a community in The Content of Their Character. They write, "the environments that children grow up in and, thus, the variety of moral influences that shape them, are astonishingly diverse and . . . have enormous bearing on how children develop morally."
When Perry invited police officers to speak to students about jail, gun laws, and community relations, she was building trust and strengthening the moral ecology. In a place where despair can feel natural, Evans says of Ms. Perry, "She makes all the kids at Lawndale feel loved and like we can do anything we dream of."