In just two years, school counselor Kirsten Perry has served as a catalyst for transforming North Lawndale Community Academy, a neighborhood elementary school in one of Chicago’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods.
From the outset, Perry knew she couldn’t give North Lawndale’s students what they needed all by herself, so she established community partnerships to give many more students and families access to mental health support and strengthen schoolwide social-emotional learning.
Perry’s own life experiences have given her a deep understanding of young people in trouble, and her journey to improve her own life left her with a strong desire to assist others on the same path.
Since Perry arrived at North Lawndale, discipline incidents are down, attendance is up and the percentage of students who are on track to complete high school has nearly doubled. These strong results for students have helped the school improve its local accountability ranking from Level Three—the worst—to Level Two.
In February, the American School Counselor Association named her School Counselor of the Year and former first lady Michelle Obama lauded Perry for her “passion, dedication and unyielding hope.”
For Mental Health Awareness Month, I spoke with Perry about building relationships, recovering from trauma and the importance of maintaining one’s own mental health and well-being while helping others.
You are a professional White woman counseling Black students and families in one of Chicago’s poorest communities. How do you build relationships with students and their families across lines of race and class?
I go into Lawndale knowing there’s a distrust of White people. I’m not intimidated by it. I’m aware of it. I don’t go into Lawndale thinking, “I’m going to be the savior.” I go in more with the mentality, “I’m here for you and you tell me, because how would I know?”
When I started there was definitely a feeling of “Oh, let’s see how long she’s going to last.” I didn’t let that get to me. I came with the mindset of “I’m going to do what I say I’m going to do.”
I told parents I would get them things and I got them. People judge you based on your actions. Eventually, over time, you start looking less like a White woman and more like a person because of your actions and what you do.
Talk to me about trauma and how your school is learning to address it.
North Lawndale is one of the five most violent neighborhoods of Chicago. Within the past year there were 41 murders here. That doesn’t include shootings where you survive the shooting.
A good 80 or 90 percent of my students have experienced some form of trauma. Many of our students have lost parents, older siblings and other loved ones to violence. Others are friends and family members of shooting survivors. Many have experienced repeated trauma. I have never seen the level of mental health concerns as I have seen at North Lawndale.
Post-traumatic stress is very prevalent and people don’t want to talk about these things. People don’t want to feel like they need a counselor and they let it go.
There are stigmas when you’re talking about trauma and mental health. There’s a fear of DCFS [Illinois’ child protection agency]. Families might not want you to be too close because they’re worried about DCFS.
How do you address mental health in such a high-need community?
It’s so intense it would be impossible for me to work with every single student. There’s no way I could give my students the attention they deserve by myself. My method in the madness is to find ways to collaborate.
In the last three years, I’ve formed a number of community partnerships. I have a partnership with the Juvenile Protective Association that gives me a social worker for three days a week. Last year she came alone. This year she is bringing one intern. Next school year she’ll be having two interns. I also have two counselor interns.
Other organizations come in an hour a week to do groups and mentoring. There’s another organization that comes and does clinical counseling four days a week. We have a Lawndale-specific community partner, Young Men’s Educational Network, that focuses on decision-making and helping students change their mindsets.
In the wake of the Parkland shooting, there has been a big debate about whether restorative justice is an effective method of discipline for ensuring school safety. What has been your experience with restorative justice at North Lawndale?
We have made a conscious decision not to suspend—we think it has negative repercussions. Instead we’re working with the student. Recently, our principal was saying suspensions went down 70 percent.
It’s important to know that restorative justice doesn’t eliminate discipline—students can still get a detention or suspension. When they come back we restore them to the community in a positive way. Maybe you did your in-school suspension, then you talk with the student about what they did wrong. Maybe they need to talk with some other students before they return to class. And then we go forward.
It’s a culture change. Any change in school culture takes time. Usually I would say three to five years if you really work hard on it. Restorative justice is a mindset. It’s hard to change people’s minds about how to approach students.
There are some teachers who are a lot more open to it than others. Some have embraced it. Others are more of the “this child needs to be punished and I don’t care what they’re dealing with” mentality.
The teachers were trained to be able to identify symptoms of trauma and to consider the root causes—where is this coming from, what could be going on for the child? How can we support these students when we’ve identified someone who is potentially experiencing trauma? How can we work with them instead of against them?
When you focus on doing things intentionally, you create systems for students to go talk to someone and they feel free to share their thoughts and feelings. If something is bothering somebody they have a place to share it, and feelings aren’t considered bad. If students feel safe to express their feelings, we can work with them to address it. It’s hard in a community like ours where so many students need someone to talk with.
We’ve taken all of our higher-risk students and matched them up with an adult. I have three kids, and I just acquired a fourth one. The principal has three kids. The security guard has his kids—we all check in with the kids and make sure they know they can come to us.
What is vicarious trauma and how does it affect your school?
You’re working with kids who are experiencing trauma and then you start to experience symptoms of trauma. It can look like having mood swings, you’re experiencing stress, you’re feeling overloaded. You feel like you’re being overworked. Maybe crying or lashing out—getting irritable.
People don’t acknowledge that. Bright Star led the training for us on this. My staff really responded well to the training.
We had that conversation about self-care and when we’re having feelings—mood swings, or fatigue, or feeling sad or angry or irritable—acknowledging those feelings and having supports for that. Juvenile Protective Association was also there and has become a support for the staff. They can speak to a social worker.
How do you practice self-care?
It’s really hard for me to say no to things, but sometimes you have to create boundaries. The work is endless. I won’t work past a certain time of the night. On the weekends I’ll make sure I have time for family and exercise. I think this has actually been my most challenging year. I started a journal a couple of months ago and I write in it every day.