SAP Elementary’s Edwards wins a state honor

By Sarah CR Clark

Errol J. Edwards, licensed school counselor at St. Anthony Park Elementary School, was recently named Minnesota’s Elementary School Counselor of the Year for 2024.

SAP Elementary School principal Karen Duke describes Edwards as a man who “truly stands out for his positive energy, his ability to connect with kids, his creativity, his courage, and his relentless commitment to pursuing racial equity in our school.

“He helped me many times with difficult decisions and situations,” Duke added. “He is a trusted adult for our students and a leader among our staff and district.”

Nominated by his elementary counselor peers, Edwards will travel with his family to Washington, D.C., in early February to be recognized by the American School Counseling Association, along with the other 2024 state school counselors.

Sue Caponi Arvidson, lead elementary counselor for St. Paul Public Schools, said, “I am absolutely thrilled that Errol Edwards is representing our state as our School Counselor of the Year.

“One only needs to see Mr. Edwards with students for a few minutes to see the connection and impact he has. He is a leader among the elementary counselor group. He is supportive, caring and his joyfulness is infectious.

“As a black man, he also understands the importance of representation. He is a role model for his students and his community.”

Edwards grew up in a great variety of places; namely Costa Rica, Wisconsin and St. Paul, and was raised within a family of educators.

As a student, Edwards attended Capitol Hill, Central High School and Como High School, where he was named the Black Scholar Athlete of the Year his senior year. He attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and played football there two years.

Initially, Edwards seemed headed toward a career in real estate. By age 20, Edwards had earned his real estate licenses in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

However, when the national recession struck in 2008, Edwards left real estate and began coaching basketball in the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Seeing the great need of many students inspired Edwards to earn his master’s degree in school counseling from Adler Graduate School (Richfield), while simultaneously working as a substitute teacher in both the St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts.

Now in his fifth year as a school counselor, Edwards’ first counseling position was at Barack & Michelle Obama Elementary.

Besides serving as a SAP Elementary school counselor, Edwards is the professional development coordinator for the St. Paul Federation of Educators. His wife, Kari Edwards, is a teaching assistant at SAP Elementary and their son is a SAP Elementary kindergartner.

“He’s so passionate, so student centered. Mr. Edwards is very committed to seeing every student,” noted Kelly Lynch, who is Edwards’ school co-counselor. Lynch splits her work weeks between SAP
Elementary and Randolph Heights Elementary.

Asked what challenges she helps SAP students manage, Lynch cited general feelings of anxiety and stress, social skills like friendship and the dynamics of coming from divorced families.

Edwards also sees students learning to deal with these same daily struggles.

“Life’s going to get difficult and I want kids to be assertive; to raise their hands, to have a voice,” Edwards said. “That’s one thing I love and think kids really appreciate—
I want kids to showcase their identity. I want them to showcase their authentic selves as they navigate this ever-changing world.”

Two fifth grade SAP students, Emine and Owen (whose full names are being withheld), agreed Edwards deserves the honor of being Minnesota’s Elementary School Counselor of the Year.

Emine met Edwards in fourth grade, when the counselor was new to the school. “He’s one of my favorite people just to talk to,” she said.

Edwards meets with SAP Elementary students in a variety of ways. Arvidson noted that elementary school counselors teach regular lessons in partnership with classroom teachers. These classroom lessons range from emotional regulation to personal safety and equity.

Edwards also meets with students in small group and individual settings.

Emine and Owen, who have both interacted with Edwards in a variety of ways, had ready responses when asked how Edwards has helped prepare them for middle school next year.

Owen said, “He has lessons about peer pressure and those will be helpful. He also will teach us how to open locks on lockers.”

Emine agreed, “Yes, his peer pressure lessons definitely, and bullying lessons too.”

During my interview with Edwards, his office was lined with partially built bonsai tree Lego sets. The Legos, supplied by the St. Anthony Park School Association, were part of an empathy building and cooperation lesson for his third-grade small groups.

“We want our kids to feel safe, supported, loved—I think that’s really important,” Edwards said. “No particular emotion is bad. It’s the choices that we make. I want our kids to grow a toolbox to be able to cope with all the different emotions they’ll be dealing with throughout their lives.”

While SAP Elementary students are well cared for by their school counselors, most of Minnesota’s students are not so fortunate. The American School Counseling Association recommends a ratio of 250 students per counselor, and yet the average ratio in Minnesota’s schools is 570 students per counselor.

Arvidson explained, “Every traditional SPPS school has at least a full-time counselor. There has been tremendous growth in elementary counseling over the past 10 years. We are very close to recommended rations in all schools. This has been accomplished by advocacy from SPFE as well as strong support from district leaders.”

SPPS has about 150 counselors, including 54 of them in elementary schools.

Reflecting on the great demand placed upon school counselors, Edwards said he is motivated by a deep sense of purpose and urgency.

“I had to build trust,” Edwards said, reflecting on his first days at SAP Elementary and Michelle & Barack Obama Elementary. “Building trust and relationships with students and their families and caregivers opens the doors to communication and it opens the doors to interventions that can help our students and their families. Because you can do every academic and behavioral intervention possible for a kid but if things at home aren’t going well, you’ll just be going around in circles. So, building that trust with students and their families is so important. We’re all in this together.”

Reflecting on being named Minnesota’s Elementary School Counselor of the Year, Edwards said, “At the end of the day, people will recognize your authentic self and that you really are trying to do your best with the time you have on this planet. To really make it a better world for the future.

“Working late hours and continuing to follow up with families, and collaborating with colleagues—even on those days when we want to cry—we get the sense of urgency happening in our communities. I feel more significant as a counselor and as a contributor than I ever have.” 

Sarah CR Clark lives in St. Anthony Park and is a regular freelance writer covering school news for the Bugle.

Photo cutline: Errol J. Edwards, a school counselor at St. Anthony Park Elementary, poses in his office with two students in December 2023. He is Minnesota’s Elementary School Counselor of the Year.  Photo by Sarah CR Clark

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