On January 30, 2013, Dr. Shelby Wyatt, a counselor at Hyde Park’s Kenwood Academy for the past 14 years, will travel to Washington D.C., as one of five finalists for the American School Counselor Association’s Counselor of the Year Award – a program which honors the best, most unique school counselors in the country and the highest honor awarded by the organization.
Dr. Wyatt was nominated for the award by Dan Stasi, Executive Director of the Illinois School Counselor Association, for successfully implementing ASCA’s vision – the promotion of student success in school, at home, in the community and in the world.
“It was a huge shock at the end of the school year,” said Dr. Wyatt, who was told last June that he had been nominated for the award. “And an even greater shock in October when I learned I was a finalist.”
Dr. Wyatt began his school counseling career in 1995, but his interest in the field goes back nearly a decade further, to a time when he was working as a substitute teacher.
“The kids were always coming to me and asking me questions,” he said. Not just about school, but about their home lives and personal issues. I wasn’t sure how to respond, but I knew I wanted to help them.”
So he returned to school and earned an M.A. in Psychology, which would later lead to a school counseling certificate and a doctorate in Education. As one of six counselors at Kenwood, Dr. Wyatt works to address the three key areas of school counseling -- academic achievement, social issues, and career development -- and has added a fourth tenant, which is unique to him.
“I call it cultural comprehension,” he said. “And it goes beyond just race, religion or ethnicity.”
Dr. Wyatt’s approach is to help students identify what is unique about them and then encourage them to embrace and celebrate that uniqueness.
“Adolescents tend to follow the crowd, because they never want to be seen as different,” he said. “But that gets in the way of their understanding and accepting their uniqueness.”
Dr. Wyatt’s impact on students goes well beyond his day-to-day role as counselor. He is the founder of the Kenwood Brotherhood, a school-based male mentoring program that works to increase graduation rates among black and Latino students while encouraging them to embrace leadership roles and commit to strong post-secondary plans. He also created the Male Initiative Project, where CPS, in collaboration with DePaul University, holds an annual seminar which empowers male students to take both school and their college and career plans more seriously.
These programs, along with his outstanding work with counseling interns and a previous school counseling award from the Illinois School Counselor Association, are what catapulted Dr. Wyatt to his position as finalist for the prestigious ASCA Counselor of the Year Award.
As part of the extensive application process, Dr. Wyatt created a video of himself working with students – a project that was not easy to complete given that it had to take place over the summer. But the number of students who were eager to participate is a testament to their respect and admiration for their counselor. After learning that he was a finalist, Dr. Wyatt flew to Washington, D.C., to be interviewed by an ASCA panel – an experience he expected would be stressful but turned out to be rewarding and relaxed.
“I went into the interview with my head full of policy and statistics,” he said, “but what they really wanted to know about was my real work. My kids and what we work on together every day.”
During his time in D.C., Dr. Wyatt also had the opportunity to meet his fellow finalists, all of whom are from rural towns in Utah, Pennsylvania, Nebraska and Arizona.
“I’m the only urban educator in the group,” he said, “so our experiences are very different. But still there’s a lot of common ground.”
Dr. Wyatt will return to D.C. in late January as part of National School Counseling Week. He plans to tour the sights and meet with his Congressional representatives to discuss the importance of school counseling and education funding as a whole.
“I want our leaders to understand how important school counseling is,” he said. “Because of a lack of funding, many schools don’t’ even have a certified person in that role, and that is troubling.”
The visit will culminate with a black-tie gala at which the 2013 School Counselor of the Year Award will be presented.
“I have no feeling about it,” said Dr. Wyatt when asked if he expects to win. “But being nominated is more than enough. It’s been an amazing experience and I’m ecstatic.”