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Meet the Exceptional School Counseling Team at Chicago Academy High School

15 February 2024

This team is known for taking care of both the heads and the hearts of the school's students and staff. 

CAHS Counselors

Chicago Academy High School on the Northwest Side has a lot of love for its school counselors. They are known as a group that takes care of both the heads and the hearts of its students and staff through a focus on social-emotional support, post-secondary planning, and academic counseling. 

A team of three is behind this great work—Ms. Amainavt Vixama and Ms. Jenell Dammar-Harris, both school counselors, and Mrs. Maria T. Casanova, a college and career coach. They note that their work allows them to be involved in basically every aspect of the school, from leadership meetings to collaborating directly with teachers to holding check-ins with students. 

They love the unpredictability of their routines and, of course, the students and colleagues they get to work with each day. Get to know them more below.

Why did you pursue school counseling as a career? 

Mrs. Casanova: I started in the classroom as a history teacher and then became an assistant principal. But I did not love the work of administration. This college and career coach role was kind of the best of both worlds. I could still work with students directly every day, guiding them along on their postsecondary journey. 

Ms. Harris: This is my 13th year with CPS. Before I became a school counselor, I worked as a Restorative Justice Coordinator. In this role, I tapped a lot into the counseling department and supported the counselors. This led me to become a counselor myself. 

Ms. Vixama: I started working in CPS in 2011. I actually left for a few years to do school counseling overseas. After a few years of that, I decided that it was time to come home to put everything that I had learned into practice to support our community here. 

How has this school year been going so far? 

Ms. Vixama: We always roll with the punches and do the best that we can. In the first semester, a lot of staff members were out, so we ended up taking on many additional leadership roles. 

Mrs. Casanova: Now that we’ve made it past semester one, we’re really trying to buckle down on all of our grade levels, but specifically our seniors. Our entire staff is trying to hone in on them and see what we can do to support them through graduation and beyond. 

Ms. Harris: This year, I’ve realized that I need to be doing a little more self-care. For example, I need to be more intentional about taking my lunch break and setting boundaries after school hours. I keep my G-Chat on and sometimes students will chat me at 9:00 or 10:00 p.m.! 

What strategies are you implementing to help students achieve postsecondary success? 

Ms. Harris: I’ve been leading a lot of the work with our younger grades to provide them with more exposure to post-secondary pathways than had been done in the past. This helps to spark areas of interest within them early, so when senior year comes around, we have some ideas about next steps. 

Ms. Vixama: Part of our philosophy has always been to meet them where they are at and challenge them to go a bit further beyond that. I’ve realized that our current class is very interested in the trades and joining the workforce. That pushes me to educate myself on these types of opportunities so I can support them. 

Mrs. Casanova: You always have some students who have it together and are ready to go, and others who may have an underlying sense of dread or panic. With those students, it’s important to uncover what they are afraid of first. From there, you can start to talk about pathways. 

What message would you like to share with your students? 

Mrs. Casanova: We believe in them. I want them to believe in themselves and continue to make us proud. I also want them to remember that they are loved, cherished, and embraced. 

Ms. Harris: They can do hard things, as long as they keep trying. 

Ms. Vixama: I wish they were able to see themselves through our eyes and see the potential that we see in them. 

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