Kirsten Perry, newly named 2018 School Counselor of the Year, was sitting in a school office with some students at Lawndale Community Academy in Chicago, waiting for what she thought would be a phone call from the executive director of the American School Counselor Association. When the phone rang and Perry answered, someone else was on the line.

“Hi, Kirsten, this is Michelle Obama. How are you?”

Perry responded, “Oh my God! . . . This is unbelievable!”

Obama called Perry to congratulate her on her award, and Obama said she would be introducing the counselor at a Feb. 2 gala in Washington, during a meeting of all of the state Counselors of the Year.

Obama became involved with the Counselor of the Year project in 2015 when her husband, Barack Obama, was president. She hosted the ceremony at the White House that year, and did in 2016 and then again in 2017.


Michelle Obama talks to 2018 School Counselor of the Year, Kirsten Perry, on a surprise telephone call. (Screen grab by The Washington Post)

The award honors school counselors who devote their careers to advocating for the nation’s students and to helping them with academic and social and emotional development needs.

Counselors are in short supply in many school districts. The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students, but most states have ratios that are far wider. (See graph below.)

Perry, the 2018 winner, works at Lawndale Community Academy, a pre-K through eighth grade school where she is the sole counselor for more than 400 students. Perry has been a school counselor for six years, moving to Lawndale in 2015 at a time when the school’s ranking in the district was the lowest possible — and had been that way for the previous five years.

School officials credit Perry with helping students focus on improving their attendance and for implementing restorative justice and other programs. Those initiatives helped Lawndale’s ranking rise at the end of her first year.

Lawndale Principal Willard Willette said in a statement that Perry’s “tireless work to improve attendance, increase community partnerships and revamp the school culture” has been central to the school’s improvement. Perry invited police officers to speak with students about gun laws, jail and community relations. She also helped students learn how to better communicate with each other. One of Perry’s initiatives was the creation of “peace circles,” where students learn to communicate.

Former student Kyla Evans was quoted by the association as saying:

“I would get in a lot of fights, too. Ms. Perry helped us to work on ourselves. We learned not to react to the small things and that if something was bothering us, we should talk it out. Ms. Perry has done a lot to help us. She makes all the kids at Lawndale feel loved and like we can do anything we dream of.”

Perry was chosen from six finalists for 2018 School Counselor of the Year. The others are:

Here, reflecting the latest data available, is a graphic from the American Counselor Association showing the availability of counselors in each state: