February 10, 2023

A Note From CPS Leadership

Click here to view this letter in Spanish, Arabic, Simplified Chinese, Filipino, Polish, Ukrainian, Urdu, or Vietnamese.
Dear CPS Families, Colleagues, and Supporters, 

This week, we are proud to celebrate the inspiring work of our CPS counselors. These professionals come to work each day with two distinct yet overlapping goals — help our students reach their full academic potential while taking care to address their social and emotional needs.
CEO Martinez and school counselors in a group photo
Never has the work of our counselors been more critical than right now, as students continue grappling with the impact of the pandemic on their learning, their relationships, and their struggle to feel safe in an often unpredictable world. This reality has made the work of our counselors even more important, and over and over again, we have seen them rise to the challenge.

Meet Our School Counselors
Headshot of Yvette Ocasio
Take Yvette Ocasio, a counselor at Von Steuben High School in the North Park neighborhood. She is a national finalist for the AFS-USA Global Educator Award, which honors the way she has brought the larger world into her school. Ms. Ocasio has enriched the experience of her students by partnering with AFS to bring visiting exchange students to Von Steuben and promote a culture of global citizenship among her school community.
Mr. Brian Sanders smiling in a group photo with students
Then there’s Brian Sanders from Harvard Elementary in Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing community. A CPS alum, he has made it his mission to connect his students with their “villages” (i.e., the many adults in their lives who are invested in their success). Mr. Sanders also uses every situation, positive or negative, as an opportunity to teach students about tenacity, accountability, and maintaining their integrity in the face of a challenge. Read more about his impact here.
A photo of Principal Abner-Adkins and Dr. Haynie smiling together
We are also proud to recognize Dr. Pamela Haynie of Wentworth Elementary in West Englewood. As a member of the CPS family for 23 years, she understands the fundamental truth that counseling is about caring. That caring is on full display in her room, which is decked out with furniture and materials that meet both the emotional and sensory needs of her students. Dr. Haynie spends a lot of time helping students develop techniques to manage their emotions, and has created a successful incentive system to help promote positive behavior. Read more about her great work here.
Tina Drake smiling for a photo inside Darwin Elementary
And finally Tina Drake, the school counselor at Darwin Elementary in Chicago’s Logan Square community. When we reached out to our CPS community asking about counselors who deserve recognition, emails praising Ms. Drake’s work came flooding in from all sides. Darwin teachers, administrators, support staff, parents, and even grandparents used words like mindful, compassionate, and welcoming to describe her work. They noted not only her commitment to Darwin students, but her dynamic presence at community events and how she goes out of her way to engage with families.

In just four years at Darwin, Ms. Drake has created a calendar of events incentivizing and highlighting students, assembled a Student Lighthouse Committee to encourage student-led events, and spearheaded several groups focused exclusively on supporting students’ social-emotional needs. She also leads Darwin’s Behavioral Health Team, and has helped bring external art and physical intervention such as yoga, dance, and CrossFit gym to her students.

Ms Drake’s impact can best be summed up by this statement from Darwin principal Daniel de los Reyes: “I could not run Darwin to its standard of excellence without her support.”
This small sampling of our CPS counseling team represents the extraordinary work of school counselors District-wide, whose impact is helping propel our city’s next generation of leaders to success in college and beyond.  

Supporting the Great Work of our Counselors
CPS counselors deserve not only our thanks and admiration, but our investment. Thanks to a $15 million School-Based Mental Health Services Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, we are able to provide our counselors with the financial support they need to pursue professional development and additional certification. This grant will also go to fund stipends for counseling interns and other programs that support the recruitment and retention of high-quality school counselors.

This grant builds on the more than $10 million CPS has invested since 2021 to hire additional counselors for schools that are in the greatest need. As a result, we have been able to lower our student-to-counselor ratio over the past several years, bringing us to levels below both the state and national average.

School Counseling and the CPS Blueprint
Continued support for school counselors reflects our commitment to Safety, Wellness, and Supportive Learning Communities in our district’s Three-Year Blueprint. At CPS, we know that our students come to us with many different needs, and it’s our job to put policies and resources in place to support the whole child, and to ensure that all students are healthy, safe, engaged, and academically challenged. This includes a specific call to expand counseling support for those school communities in the greatest need.
A description of the District's committment to Safety, Wellness, and Supportive Learning Communities
I encourage families to read more about our Blueprint on our website, and sign up to get involved in the work that we are doing to reimagine how our District meets the needs of our students and communities.

I thank all of our counselors for their extraordinary work on behalf of Chicago’s children, and hope that they were all made to feel celebrated by our school communities during National School Counseling Week.    


Pedro Martinez
Chief Executive Officer
Chicago Public Schools

Help Us Highlight Your School
One of our goals for 2023 is to highlight more of the amazing things that are happening day-to-day in our schools, along with the people who are making them happen. There is no better source for this good news than you — the members of our school communities — so we hope you will consider sharing your stories by completing this brief form.

Here are some topics to consider:
  • What events are being planned by your school to celebrate Black History Month (February) and Women’s History Month (March)?
  • Help us acknowledge a school crossing guard who goes above and beyond for students during Crossing Guard Appreciation Month (February 15–March 15)
  • February 14–17 is Random Acts of Kindness Week. Tell us about someone in your CPS community whose kind actions have made a difference for their school community.
Help us celebrate your school in 2023 and show the world that the best are with CPS! Fill out this form so that we can share your stories in this newsletter, on our District’s blog, and across our CPS social media channels.
Photos of Ms. Ortiz
Take Five with Elizabeth Lee Ortiz: School Counselor at Byrne Elementary
Take Five is a series that highlights some of the many CPS staff members who are going above and beyond for our schools. If you know someone who is making a difference, nominate them to be featured here.
National School Counseling Week is the perfect opportunity to introduce Ms. Elizabeth Lee Ortiz, who has been the school counselor at Michael M. Byrne Elementary School since 2018. Ms. Ortiz started her education journey as a physical education teacher more than ten years ago before going back to school to become a school counselor. The combination of her experience as a physical education teacher and her training as a mental health professional has shaped Ms. Ortiz into someone who is focused on educating the whole child.

"Ms. Ortiz truly connects with all of our students — she facilitates restorative justice practices and social-emotional learning lessons, and she is even the DJ at our middle school dances," said Byrne Assistant Principal Melody Murphy. "She brings energy to our school and works toward bringing harmony and peace to students of all ages. She helps make our school a place of comfort and joy."

What was your path to becoming a school counselor? 
For most of my life I didn’t know what I wanted to do. For a while, I was a professional breakdancer and I worked in a salon. And then I realized I liked teaching and working with children. Once I became a physical education teacher, my students started talking to me about what they were going through outside of school, and that’s what led me to finding my place in counseling. Part of me feels like I should have been a counselor from the beginning, but I think the experience I gained prior to this role makes me better at what I do now.

What is your biggest focus as a counselor?
Restorative conversations and conflict mediation. With so much time spent on social media and the internet, it’s not easy for students to discuss hard things face-to-face. But when we give them the support and tools they need, and the conversation is facilitated by an adult who is trained in restorative practices, I see kids really connecting, talking to each other, and truly resolving conflict. We’re not spoon-feeding them apologies. Instead, we’re seeing real accountability within relationships. My mindset is: You can teach students coping techniques all day long, and that’s important. But our goal should be to get them past the point of coping and help them resolve their conflicts once and for all. Seeing that happen is the most rewarding part of my job, and I think it is definitely the most important part of being a school counselor.

What are you most well known for in your school community?
Everyone knows I’m the school counselor, which I feel proud of, because I have a presence and have built a lot of strong relationships within the community. But I think each student would tell you something different about who I am and what I do. One kid may tell you that I’m the person you talk to when you’re feeling depressed. Another kid could tell you that I’m the person who brings people together to talk about their issues. And another kid may tell you I’m the DJ at the school dance!

What do you like to do outside of work?
I am really big on self-care, so I have a ton of hobbies. I’ve trained jiu-jitsu for about three or four years now — I’m currently a blue belt. I like to DJ, and I used to breakdance and do graffiti. I’m a dog mom and a plant mom. I have two mini bull terriers, Chuy and Puma. 

What are your biggest goals not connected to your job?
Overall, I am always working to be a better version of myself tomorrow than I am today. That’s pretty much always been my mindset.
Brianna, senior at Bogan High School, smiling for a photo
Student and Staff Spotlights
We’re continuing to highlight our CPS seniors who have received the Posse Foundation Scholarship. At Bogan High School, soon-to-be graduate Brianna notes that high school has helped her develop her confidence both inside and outside of the classroom. She’s also built a strong support system that has helped make her experience extremely enjoyable. Her rigorous IB course load has prepared her well to succeed at Connecticut College next year, where she plans to major in business and minor in art.

And we’re also so excited to feature one of our new educators who is making a big impact at Hay Elementary School on Chicago’s West Side. Ms. Leticia Ramirez participated in the CPS Teacher Residency Program, and this experience equipped her with all the tools she needed to create a welcoming classroom environment for her diverse learners. Now, she’s not only focused on helping her students succeed academically. She also wants them to develop a strong work ethic and positive attitude.
Disney II High School's HBCU Alumni Panel
A Look Around the District
As the first full week of Black History Month comes to an end, we would like to highlight the numerous celebrations happening around the District. Disney II High School hosted its first annual HBCU Alumni Panel to bring awareness to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The school’s dance team kicked off the event and was followed by graduates from Jackson State University, Howard University, and Hampton University who shared with students and families their experience navigating HBCUs.
Students and staff from Michele Clark High School kicked off February with the 16th annual BHM event with Illinois State Representative La Shawn Ford. The school enjoyed student performances and was also gifted $2000 for the Michele Clark Scholarship Fund sponsored by Representative Ford. And at Von Steuben High School, advanced band students ended the week with an African Drum Circle consisting of more than 50 participants who were interested in learning more about this art form.
Martin Cabrera interacting with students
New Partnership Expands Students’ Financial Literacy