Three CUSD counselors lead student-centered efforts toward districtwide success

By Cathi Douglas

Growing up, Julie Chutuk had no idea what career to pursue. Her grandmother had the answer.

Chutuk’s grandmother, now 97 years old, loved her career as a high school counselor and believed a similar career would be deeply satisfying for her granddaughter.

Chutuk took her words to heart and after earning her master’s degree at Cal State Northridge has spent more than 15 years as an elementary school counselor, now working at Kinoshita Elementary in San Juan Capistrano.

The Orange County Department of Education honored Chutuk and two other leading counselors in the Capistrano Unified School District as 2021’s counselors of the year.

Chutuk is the district’s Elementary Counselor of the Year, while Jessica Sandoval is the county’s Middle School Counselor of the Year, and Jenny Thai is 2021 Orange County Counselor Advocate of the Year.

Julie Chutuk, Kinoshita Elementary School

One of Chutuk’s proudest moments occurred recently when a colleague said she’d never seen anyone else who had such a great connection with students.

“They go to you for anything,” the staffer noted. “I’ve worked at a lot of schools and I’ve never seen anyone like you.”

To Chutuk, being a comfort and support for her students is the most important part of her job.

The award from the county’s Department of Education surprised her since she has been a school counselor for a long time.

“Counseling is a hard job, but it’s a great job,” she says. “It’s rewarding when kids come back and thank you for your help, or when you see them thrive with the skills you were able to help them build. Those moments are cool.”

Working with students, colleagues, and parents virtually since last March has been challenging, Chutuk observes, but she believes she’s developed stronger connections and new skills as a result.

“It’s really been a group effort on the part of everyone at the school,” she notes. “Education has been turned on its head, and counseling was no different. We thrive on physical connections with our kids in small groups or face to face; we rely on facial cues and it’s hard to do that over Google Meet, Zoom, or the telephone.”

As the district and the nation pivot to face pandemic challenges, Chutuk says, she is proud of the work counselors are doing to face the crisis.

“Everything is ever-changing,” she says. “Still, counselors by nature are taught to be very flexible and adaptive, and at this time we’re really needed. I’m proud to say I am one – and I’m here to help as much as can.”

And while technology intimidates her, Chutuk says she has grown from a pen-and-paper person to someone who can embed videos on Canvas and is competent in the virtual classroom.

“It’s been a stretch, but as a whole I’m proud of the counselors in our district, who’ve come together and created core curricular lessons in an online format, pushed them out, and are working well as a solid group,” she said.

Chutuk says she can’t imagine working anywhere else, despite a 45-minute commute from her Oceanside home.

“I’ve worked at six different schools in the district, and I’ve come back to Kinoshita,” she declares. “It’s like a family here.”

Jessica Sandoval, Marco Forster Middle School

On the job for just three years, Sandoval has made significant inroads as a counselor at her middle school and in the field itself.

A Cal State Fullerton alumna in psychology, she earned her master’s degree in school counseling at Cal State Long Beach and found her passion in supporting middle school students.

A counselor delivers many different services, Sandoval notes, from helping students with study skills, emotional coping mechanisms, instruction on dealing with anxiety and stress, and lessons in how to build successful relationships, in addition to career and college preparation.

“These students are still developing, and they haven’t found their voice,” Sandoval explains. “We must help them to discover where they’re at and tailor the school system to meet their needs. Counselors need to model positive relationships and positive social, academic, and emotional skills.”

Sandoval has instituted schoolwide incentives for students showing positive behavior and posted signs in every classroom spelling out school rules.

Thanks to Sandoval’s efforts, the school has seen a decrease of 40 percent in detentions, a significant decrease in chronic absenteeism, and a large reduction in suspensions – and most of these efforts have affected at-risk groups the most.

Key issues for middle schoolers, such as bullying, are addressed through intervention, restorative measures, and positive modeling, she notes. Using ‘restorative circles,’ Sandoval encourages students, their peers, and teachers to review the problems that led to negative actions, learn from them, and move past the issue.

“At this age they are still learning, and with restorative circles I’m able to teach students the different routes they can take for positive solutions,” she says. “This helps bullies empathize and see how their actions affect the other person. It gives the victim a place to share their feelings in safe surroundings. Then we identify positive steps moving forward.”

Sandoval and her co-counselor built a comprehensive counseling program for San Juan Capistrano-based Marco Forster, and she considers the county honor to be a testament to their hard work.

“This award belongs to the entire school, because I wouldn’t be able to do all I do without the support of all of our stakeholders and students,” she said.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to deliver services and see the impact of the counseling system on our students,” she says. “Having stakeholders recognize the impact is huge for me.”

Last year, Sandoval was recognized nationally for her work. In the future she wants to advocate for counseling at the county, state, and national levels and in the American School Counseling Assn.

Jenny Thai, Counselor on Special Assignment

As a former elementary school teacher for at-risk students in East Los Angeles, Thai says her mission is to promote social justice and equity at all levels of society – beginning with students.

Early on, Thai says, she recognized that the social worker’s once-weekly visits to her school weren’t enough to meet the students’ many needs. So, she returned to California State University of Los Angeles (CSULA) for a Master of Science degree in School Counseling and initially worked in the Temple City Unified School District.

“For us, as school counselors, our role is to provide equity for all students,” Thai declares. “We must push through current events and with education leaders to address the changes we need to see in the school system.

“Being in leadership roles, we must advocate to go beyond the status quo for change,” she continues. “My hope is to push people to be that positive change.”

With credentials in pupil personnel and child welfare attendance, Thai is working toward her preliminary administration credential at UC Irvine, with the goal of supporting her fellow school counselors as a peer coach.

Thai has been a counselor in Capistrano Unified for three years. As a counselor on special assignment for the past five months, her job focuses on integrating and promoting the Comprehensive School Counseling Program, which is based on the American School Counselor Association National Model. To do so, she supports counselors at the site level in collaboration with Dr. Rebecca Pianta, the district’s coordinator of counseling and student support.

“My role is to help all students to succeed,” she says. “We are getting closer to closing the equity gap and by pushing for systemic change we can help students succeed by addressing the whole child.”

She feels fortunate to be able to support counselors in their important work, by providing resources, support, training, and professional development.

“I feel lucky to be able to provide those things,” she says. “My hope is push people to be that positive change. We can hopefully see the necessary changes to address all the needs our students are dealing with.”

Learn more about the tremendous impact CUSD school counselors have on ensuring students achieve school success in this video!

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