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Seven questions for the cartwheeling Chicagoan named national school counselor of the year

Brian Coleman, pictured center with flowers, poses with students from Jones College Prep on the day of his announcement
Brian Coleman, pictured center with flowers, poses with students from Jones College Prep on the day of his announcement
Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago

Brian Coleman is the kind of counselor who will turn a one-handed cartwheel while being cheered on by his colleagues. That’s what happened Tuesday shortly after students and staff at Jones College Prep surprised the high-energy educator with the news he was the national school counselor of the year.

The cartwheel fits in with Coleman’s approach. To connect with students, he relies on his “unicorn philosophy.” Coleman, who has worked at the school since 2014, explained that in a brief conversation with Chalkbeat after his honor was announced.

Why do you think you and your school were singled out for this honor?

It comes back to work we’re doing here at Jones. We have a wonderfully diverse population, we have a lot of buy-in from our administration around the counseling work we do in the school, and we align what we do with the American School Counseling Association model.

We use a data-driven, results-driven comprehensive program that meets students where they are, and we build programming that not only meets the needs of students but also of our parents and guardians. We’re also reflective about the programming that we do, and we have the flexibility to implement it in the school, and that allows results. I’m passionate about that.

What does data-driven counseling look like?

Are you assessing the needs of the students in your community and how are you doing that? So we do a comprehensive needs assessment at each grade level, looking at the students’ academic, personal and social, and college and career needs, and then we build our core programming around that work.

Through the series of needs assessments that we do, we’re able to identify students who are at risk, and who need referral or additional support, and we follow up with those students to triage those supports.

We are looking at the individual student and what the individual student’s needs are, where the trends around the classes and grade levels and any specific target groups are — and closing the gaps if necessary — and then we look at the system overall. By looking at the school at different levels, we’re able to create a comprehensive program.

Is every student screened?

Every student is screened.

How many counselors are at Jones?

There are six counselors total.

There has been a call for more mental health staff in Chicago schools. What would you say is a fundamental first step for the district?

I think a fundamental first step is looking specifically at the needs at each individual school, for the counselor or counselors who are present at the school — well, point one, are there counselors present in the school? Who are the social and emotional supports for the school? How do they understand their role in the school?

What I found, at least in our district, is that counseling can look different from school to school. How do we systematize that and streamline that in a way, ideally that aligns with the American School Counselor Association model?

And then: collect data. What are your students saying? What are the members of your community saying about the needs of the students? And how can you create comprehensive programming to meet those needs?

What is your secret to getting a challenging student to open up?

I think it comes back to a unicorn philosophy. I’m weird. I’m awkward. I name that. I own that immediately. I am confident in that. I think showing students that it’s OK to be different, to be weird, to have good days, to have bad days, to have difficult emotions. You normalize it. You create a space for them to be, like, OK, I can be odd or weird or different or confused and work through that in a way that’s going to help me improve and get closer to where I want to be. That’s the secret. Be authentic. Be real.

And do cartwheels?

Do cartwheels when necessary. But stretch first.

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