LifeChanger of the Year Nominee Profile

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Elizabeth Kanagawa

Position: School Counselor
School: Patrick Henry Middle School
School District: Woodhaven-Brownstone School District
City, State: Brownstown, MI

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Elizabeth Kanagawa was nominated by two board members from the Michigan School Counselor Association: Sara Dickman and Terri Tchorzynski. The following profile is a combination of both nominations.

When passion and dedication meet ingenuity and innovation, there is no doubt that impactful change can happen, especially when it is used to further advance opportunities for students.  Ms. Kanagawa innately embodies all of these characteristics as a true advocate for her students. As a result, her school counseling program has been honored as a Recognized ASCA Model Program. More importantly, her program has undergone transformative change that better serves the students at Patrick Henry Middle School.  

Ms. Kanagawa is a graduate of Spring Arbor University and has been a school counselor for nine years. She’s a natural leader and effective advocate for students. She’s very active in the school’s daily functioning, and she graciously supports students, administration, staff, and parents.

“Elizabeth...exudes enthusiasm in her work daily and often presents fresh new ideas on ways to reach students and advance counseling services. She also holds a high level of experience, knowledge and insight that several staff look to for guidance, including myself,” said Patrice Barden, LLMSW, School Social Worker.

Ms. Kanagawa implemented an innovative strategy called “Minute Meetings” in order to touch base with every single student in her building. She and a coworker meet with each student in the school for one minute, a lofty goal in the eyes of other school counselors/social workers. She asks the students important questions related to their overall mental health. By doing so, she’s able to identify students who are most in need of support. 

“You will not find a more dedicated school counselor anywhere than Betsy Kanagawa! Betsy continually seeks to stretch the boundaries of possibilities in regards to ensuring that students do not go unnoticed...Betsy goes above and beyond every day, and she deserves to be recognized for her outstanding contributions,” said a Patrick Henry community partner.

One of the most significant transformations that has occurred as a result of Ms. Kanagawa’s leadership is the development of the school-based Mental Health Advisory Board. This board consists of school professionals and community mental health agencies, and its purpose is to eliminate barriers that exist in connecting students to mental health services. As a result of this newly-formed group, the network has expanded across multiple districts. Currently, the group is in the planning stages of creating a multi-district community event to promote and raise awareness around mental health. Ms. Kanagawa’s reach outside of her school walls to meet student needs did not stop with this event, but it continued to expand when she started a regional group for middle school counselors to provide support and resources to one another.  

Ms. Kanagawa is also a strong advocate for using data to address the needs of all students, especially historically marginalized student populations and "at risk" student groups. Initiating crucial conversations served as the foundation of this work. Ms. Kanagawa started asking her staff why 40% of their office referrals were coming from African-American students.  Despite the defensive response she received, she kept pushing forward to advocate for this specific student group. She provided intentional interventions to support specific student groups in her Closing-the-Gap activities. She also created a mentorship program and school-wide events to raise awareness around equity and diversity.

As a result of Ms. Kanagawa’s leadership in creating a comprehensive school counseling program, it is safe to say that her program is naturally embedded in the systems of the building and is a driving force when decisions are made that impact students.  A strong Tier 1 foundation is how Ms. Kanagawa and her team ensure they are meeting the needs of all 400+ students on their caseloads. They make sure program goals align to district-wide goals of improving academic outcomes. As a result of the intentional work that has been done, her team has already seen a decrease in the number of students who are “credit deficient” at the end of ninth grade. The district is simultaneously seeing improvements in ACT scores and graduation rates. The great part about these improvements is that key stakeholders understand how the school counseling program has played a part in these outcomes because they share their data with school boards and school staff.

“During the 2018-2019 school year Patrick Henry Middle School received the district honor of being named a RAMP school. This is due in no small part to the leadership, accountability, and outstanding professionalism of Mrs. Elizabeth “Betsy” Kanagawa. This professional is a true testament to the mission and vision of ASCA. She has created and cultivated a data-driven, outcomes-based program that takes into account the whole child approach” stated Principal Mathew Salah.

Because of her work, Ms. Kanagawa has been named the 2021 Michigan School Counselor of the Year. The School Counselor of the Year award, which is presented by the Michigan School Counselor Association, honors the professionals who devote their careers to serving as advocates for the nation’s students and addressing their academic and social/emotional development and college and career readiness. The School Counselor of the Year finalists were judged on: creative school counseling innovations, effective school counseling programs, leadership skills and contributions to student advancement. Ms. Kanagawa along with other state School Counselor of the Year winners, will be evaluated for National School Counselor of the Year.

“Betsy Kanagawa is a LifeChanger because of the numerous contributions she has made for her students, but also because of what she has done for the profession,” said Tchorzynski. “Betsy is now using her passion and dedication mixed with her ingenuity and innovation to spearhead some new initiatives, professional development, and advocacy work through the Michigan School Counselor Association. There is no doubt that our profession will be better as a result of Betsy's leadership and passion.”



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