Brian Coleman, who heads the counseling department at Jones College Prep, has been named the 2019 National School Counselor of the Year. This is the second year in a row that a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) counselor has held the title. Maureen Kelleher of Chicago Unheard spoke with Brian recently about his journey from acting to school counseling, the ways Jones is strengthening college access for first-gen and under-represented students and how student advocacy has created safe space for LGBTQ+ students and improved sex education at Jones. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Tell us your story. How did you become a school counselor?
I’ve always been really passionate about human behavior and patterns of human behavior. I think that first manifested for me through acting. When I was in college, I started touring with About Face Youth Theater. We were doing really powerful pieces related to LGBTQ+ homelessness in Chicago high schools. We had talk-backs with the students after the shows, discussing identity, privilege and power, social justice and so many other issues. I was so moved by the discussions we were having, I began asking myself, “How can I engage in school work in a more intentional way? Who does this kind of work in schools?”
I quickly realized school counselors are best positioned to explore identity development with high school students and thought, “If I’m going to make a career change that would be the way to go.”
I interviewed at Jones College Prep, got accepted as an intern and have been there ever since.
I’ve seen the research showing that students from low-income neighborhoods at selective enrollment schools are actually less likely to attend selective colleges than either their wealthier peers in their school or kids from neighborhoods like theirs who attend high-performing neighborhood or magnet schools. I’ve also seen research showing that high-achieving Black and Latinx students across CPS are especially likely to see their grades plummet freshman year, which can have long-lasting negative effects on GPA. Taken together, these findings raise concerns that selective enrollment schools aren’t supporting low-income students of color as well as one would expect, particularly when it comes to college access. How are you working to change this?
It’s a work in progress. We’ve seen some of the research and data on how students of color do at selective enrollment and we’re asking how do we create buy-in around equity and access? How are we making sure all students have access to AP courses? What are the prerequisities?
When I started at Jones, our counseling work with juniors and seniors was almost exclusively about postsecondary, while with freshmen and sophomores the work was mostly social emotional. I started by working with freshmen and sophomores and it was painful to turn that relationship over to another counselor just as they were starting to work on postsecondary.
More than anything, counseling is relationship driven work. Starting a relationship with kids halfway through their high school process and jumping into postsecondary work did not serve student interests. You can’t replicate two years of work.
We moved to a model where we sustain relationships across the four years. Each counselor has a segment of the alphabet and works with those kids for all four years. This has allowed us to ensure we are constantly working on three strands of development: postsecondary, social emotional, and academic in the sense of understanding GPA, learning about time management, and so on.
Now we’re doing a better job of targeting. We went from not knowing our percentage of first-generation kids to tracking it. This is our second year of tracking intensively at each grade level who are our first-gens. [Coleman estimates between a quarter and a third of Jones’ student body could be described as first-generation college students.]
This is our first year offering a counseling group for juniors about what being first-gen might mean for going through the college admissions process. We’ve revised all our college and postsecondary curriculum to spell out the possibilities for students who aren’t in the junior group.
As the parent of a transgender daughter, I can tell you that Jones has a very strong reputation in the community for supporting LGBTQ+ students. How did it get there? How did you help?
That brings tears to my eyes, to be honest. It means a lot to me that Jones is known to be a welcoming space. It’s a very important piece of what brought me to this work.
When I started here there was a GSA [Gay-Straight Alliance]. I will never forget one of the first conversations I had here, with a student who said, “But I’m not gay or straight, so how is this an organization for me?”
That was a beautiful moment of learning for me and I realized we needed a rebrand to make a change. I immediately became the sponsor of the organization we had known as our GSA. We’ve been through some different names based on what spoke to students. About two years ago we rebranded to Jones Pride. I think that’s something students can get behind.
I came into Jones expecting students to want more of an advocacy organization. What I found was students wanted a safe and affirming space to talk about issues important to them. It was a good fit. In addition to our [Jones Pride] group, I ran a counseling group for students (Exploring Gender and Sexuality) where students could get structured support for the coming-out process. Over time a lot of that morphed into Jones Pride.
A lot of my work has also been helping rebrand counseling. I’m a Black gay man, I’m a big personality and from day one I said, “Supporting gay and gender non-conforming kids is important to me.” Students come up and tell me, “I heard about you before I got here.” I have facilitated many conversations between students and their counselors here. I don’t think prior to me participating in the counseling function did students think, “Oh, these are issues I could explore with my counselor.”
Staff struggle to know how to talk in an open and affirming way about choices and decisions students are making related to gender and sexuality. Those are many conversations I’ve had with our staff. Comprehensive sex education is a program we are still trying to get established across our school communities.
Tell me more about the changes to the sex education curriculum at Jones. Is there interest in sharing what you’ve developed with other Chicago high schools?
When I arrived, comprehensive sexual health education was offered to freshmen and given through outside providers. Students would say, “What about us—gender and sexual minority students?”
Jones Pride members talked with the sophomore student government association. They took it to administration and the P.E. department. Then the adults came to me and said, “Mr. Coleman, can you help us figure this out?” That’s not something I can say no to. The sophomore student government association wanted content on gender and sexual identity development, healthy relationships and laws related to sexual violence.
CPS and the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance have created this incredible K-12 curriculum for schools to be using. I got trained on the full curriculum and found relevant options for the sophomores—healthy relationships, sexual violence. I said, “I can support this, but this has to be schoolwide, and I need more staff. Mr. Coleman will not be teaching comprehensive sex education to the entire sophomore class.” I put out a call to staff, and eight people were willing to get trained and help teach. Over a few days, 470 or so sophomores received three hours straight of curriculum provided by a duo of teachers. This year we’re revising the model to build a partnership between last year’s team and the P.E. department.
People in education want to do right by students. When you hear from students, “This is how you can support us,” it’s much easier to gain traction for new programming.
Is there anything else you want to tell our audience of teachers and parents?
What we’ve been able to do at Jones doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are powerful things happening at the district level around social-emotional learning and postsecondary planning. There’s amazing professional development coming from the district helping us understand first-generation students and postsecondary planning. I’ve seen that be powerful.
There is district support prioritizing counseling. It’s not just Jones. There’s momentum around creating space, time, energy and priority for counselors around the district. With things happening on the state level around special education, we were able to get a case manager about three months ago. There is money for schools to get additional support with case management.
With Kirsten Perry being the National School Counselor of the Year Last year, it shows we’ve been able to accomplish amazing things in very different environments. [You can read about Perry’s work at North Lawndale Community Academy here.] It really speaks to the wonderful work happening in our district.