Social Work Goes to School

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Most people understand that social workers apply their skills in a variety of settings: working in hospitals, visiting homes, giving testimony in courts, setting up meetings and consultations in offices. Sometimes school social workers (SSWs) can be overlooked simply because of the host of people working with children and families in the school environment. Four colleagues from across the country shared their experiences as social workers going back to school.

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Tami Becker-Anderson LCSW

School Social Worker
Gooding School District
Gooding, Idaho

Officially, she is the social worker for all four Gooding district schools, but really, Tami Becker-Anderson's job description seems closer to 'all things for all people' in her rural community. Her job, set up by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (DHW), was always meant to do more than address academic concerns. "When Health and Welfare first created this funding, it was with the philosophy that we would work with the students and help them alleviate any issues in their outside lives," she says.

Many times Becker-Anderson may not only be helping the students--"That's part of doing school social work: a lot of these students, if they do need counseling outside the school, they don't get it"--but also their families. Twin Falls, a larger town with mental health services providers, is 35 miles from Gooding. Families need to go almost as far for a local DHW office to apply for food stamps or Medicaid. Knowing that "families can't make it to the other towns," Becker-Anderson does what she can. In fact, this is why she became a SSW, after working in child protection. "I felt like in this setting I could touch more lives," she explains. She has access to DHW's emergency assistance funds to help families pay rent or utility bills. She recalls last fall, during the H1N1 outbreak, aiding parents who became too ill to work but didn't have sick leave benefits from their jobs. Often, the community works together to provide support. "We work closely with agencies and churches and different groups to try to establish resources," Becker-Anderson says. "I think we do a pretty good job."

Of course, her main focus is on Gooding's students. This year, being spread between all four schools is physically easier. The elementary and middle schools are housed in connected buildings--Becker-Anderson's office is among those of other administrators--and the high school is across the street. This year, while work is being done on the alternative high school's campus, its classes are held in a wing of the middle school. Without having to commute, she can work more effectively. But having four sets of students-- roughly 1,200--causes logistical problems; it's a challenge meeting with students who need weekly check-ins, Becker-Anderson says.

The teachers work closely with Becker-Anderson, and are often the ones making referrals to her. "Every year it's different, sometimes I'll go into the classrooms and do a lesson on compassion, or friendship, or bullying--and so introduce myself that way. And then sometimes the teachers will give me a group of student to meet with," she continues. The students "do see me differently than the teachers.... They are more relaxed with me." She says in addition to referrals from teachers or counselors, many families approach her because friends or neighbors have recommended doing so.

This may be because of her roots in the community--she was born and raised in Gooding. "So I know a lot of the families and the dynamics," she explains. Besides, she's been the district's SSW for nearly 13 years, despite several shifts in the details of her position; at one time she worked exclusively at the alternative high school, at another she worked only with students in kindergarten through sixth grade, at another there was an elementary school counselor who covered some of the work. Becker-Anderson has seen her salary shift from drawing completely on DHW funds to now only about one-third DHW money, the rest paid by the district. She describes a little worry about future budget cuts, but knows this is the time people need aid even more: "I can't imagine now with the economy and people out of work, not having a social worker."

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Amy Parmentier LCSW

School Social Worker
Fairfax County Public Schools
Chantilly, Virginia

It's impossible to miss the satisfaction in Amy Parmentier's voice as she talks about her work. She's in her fourth year at Franklin Middle School, and has worked at all age levels of the Fairfax County school system since she started in 1998. She worked with children in other social work settings, but decided to go back to school: "It was a very nice merging of utilizing clinical skills and supporting kids to do things they didn't think they would be able to do. It's also to me the natural place to work with kids," she says.

Fairfax County is one of the most populous jurisdictions in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area; the county's population exceeds that of seven states. The median household income is among the nation's highest. The school system is the 12th largest in the country, with 197 schools and more than 173,000 students. Parmentier grew up in rural Maryland, and bustling suburbia is quite a contrast for her. "Its size alone is staggering, just the number of schools that we have in our county, and the range of cultures and languages and folks who have had different life experiences," she continues, "and we all come together in this process of sending kids to schools." The diversity is a welcome challenge. "One of the greatest aspects of social work practice is our belief in our ability to connect and establish a rapport with anyone," she says. And even with overall affluence, there is a range of needs. "There are still kids and families who are working through some difficult situations.... I don't think there's anywhere, unfortunately, that's immune to having some struggles."

While some Fairfax County SSWs serve several schools, Parmentier works full-time at Franklin, which has a special program for students with socio-emotional difficulties. "We staffed the building with one full-time clinical person so that there would always be someone here to support the kids," she explains. Her focus is on special education students with individualized education programs (IEPs), providing "a higher level of support for students who have IEPs that necessitate that." But she serves all Franklin's students.

Parmentier recognizes that she is part of a team of professionals supporting the learning environment. "The foundation of all the work we do is really help kids be available to learn," she says. "In Fairfax County we are so fortunate to have a range of student service experts. All school buildings have school counselors, and a school social worker and a school psychologist." And they all keep busy. "One thing we all universally say is, there's never a day when you're not busy. There is always a range of needs that present in any given day." As an example, she recently asked teachers and counselors for referrals for a study skills counseling group. "I was deluged," she says, with enough students for 20 groups.

Parmentier's experience working with teachers has been positive. "Despite the demands placed on them for very high outcomes, if you let them know that a student has something else that's affecting them, they will really work with that student and be so flexible," she says.

In addition to referrals from her colleagues as well as families within the school community, Parmentier reaches out to students and their parents. "For students who are receiving those IEP-specialized services, I do make an initial contact with them and with their families. I come to back-to-school night and try to meet all the families," she says. Parmentier then celebrates the students' progress with these families throughout the year. "When these report cards came out, having a couple of students with major grade improvements, seeing their happiness with themselves and their efforts...That's the part we want to see."

Sheryl Thomas has spent 24 years helping students in Chicago's public schools

Sheryl Thomas LCSW

School Social Worker
Chicago Public Schools
Chicago, Illinois

The theme of Sheryl Thomas's 24-year tenure in Chicago Public Schools seems to be change. Last year she was working at two high schools, one of them a charter school; this year she splits her time between two south-side Chicago schools--Kellogg Elementary School, with students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and South Shore Fine Arts Academy, a new school for pre-kindergarten through second grade students. Thomas was a SSW for one year before moving to the Cook County Hospital, later to the city's Department of Health, and then back to the school system. "I see myself as a high school social worker," she says, explaining that the bulk of her time has been spent with that age group.

She finds many contrasts now between Kellogg and South Shore. "At Kellogg it's a very structured school environment and there's a lot of community support." She says that during the two days a week she's at Kellogg, she works mostly with the special education students with IEPs, and seldom gets referrals for the rest of the school population. Kellogg is a small school, just one classroom per grade, and students have to apply to attend. Accordingly, Thomas feels, they are typically very focused on their education. "They are on target, they're invested in school, there are very few disruptions to the classroom setting," she says.

Working with teachers at both schools is more difficult because it's her first year being assigned to them, Thomas says. At Kellogg, she does not have an office, and so by necessity she has to go into the classrooms frequently. But this can be challenging if teachers don't know what a SSW does, or confuse SSWs with counselors. Sometimes, Thomas continues, teachers feel like the classroom is "their domain," and are afraid she is there to report back to the principal. Establishing a rapport over time is critical for Thomas. "I have the greatest success when I have relationships with teachers," she says.

Of course, even with an understanding, Thomas realizes one-on-one social work sessions in the corner of the classroom might not be the best option: "If I'm trying to work with little Johnny on working cooperatively with another student, it's distracting to a class," she says. Her creative solution is to go into gym class. "You still have to walk gingerly because that's not your class," she explains, but the different dynamic of gym gives her opportunities to work with students on a variety of issues.

Having been in the system so long, Thomas mostly draws on colleagues for help: "Because I've been around, I have my own network of people." When she's assigned a new school, she finds out who was there previously and contacts them to get the lay of the land, but this is one of her own initiatives. Most of the formal aid goes to new SSWs, she says. "If you're new to the system, they do put you with a mentor to kind of help you adjust."

Even the structure of meeting with other social workers has changed during Thomas's tenure. There have been citywide meetings, and groups based on type of school (i.e., SSWs from all the high schools would meet together), and currently they are grouped according to region. It was when she met with fellow SSWs assigned to high schools that Thomas saw the breadth of urban challenges, which varied across the city. One of her schools, a lower-performing school, was plagued by guns, violence, and teenage pregnancy. Her colleagues from schools in more affluent neighborhoods had students impacted by drugs. "My kids would go to juvenile detention, their kids would go to hospitalization," Thomas says.

It's a high school student who stands out in Thomas's head as she looks back at the years. Thomas met the girl, who had learning disabilities, as a disorganized sophomore. Thomas's task was "helping her set up a schedule in her life ... it was something really simple. Once we met that goal, it began to impact in other areas of her life," Thomas continues. "She just blossomed after she was able to accomplish that really small thing."

Lisa Cox, LCSW-R

Clinical Supervisor
Gateway-Longview, Williamsville, NY

For almost four years, Lisa Cox has served as clinical supervisor at the Lynde School and the residential program at Gateway-Longview, an agency in suburban western New York. Together the programs serve about 150 youth annually; two-thirds of these youth are day students, the remaining 50 are in the residential program as well. Every child is assigned a social worker, and has meetings with him or her at least weekly. Length of stay varies on a case-by-case basis.

As a supervisor, Cox only spends a small portion of her time working directly with children. Her main duty is making sure the social workers she supervises--two separate groups who focus on the educational or residential aspects of a youth's plan--have what they need to help the youth succeed. "There is a big difference in that the residential social workers are involved in all aspects of their child's care. It's more of a holistic sort of job," Cox explains. "They have to work with so many different systems, whereas in the school, the school social workers are limited to working with the kids and their families on school issues. They are working on issues related to academics and barriers to kids achieving their full academic potential."

"To be honest, the staff do a really nice job of delineating the school and cottage life," Cox continues. "It's different staff, it's different administrators, the kids have a feeling of it being separate." At school, the classroom staff collaborate closely on general work as well as responses to individual students. The SSWs also work directly with the parents, in meetings that are typically held twice a month, Cox says. "It's a time and place for the social worker and the parent to talk about the educational needs of the student."

Like Cox herself, many of the workers she supervises have a background in residential work. "I came into the school position [because] it was something I was very interested in," she says. She notes that the region has many school counseling and school social work programs, so many graduates of those programs find they have to widen their horizons when looking to begin their careers. Some stay in other parts of the field, but many return to their interest in school social work.

Cox sometimes misses working directly with children, but she also loves her current role, and wouldn't want to change it. She understands that just as the frontline workers are helping Gateway-Longview's children improve, so she is helping her staff. "Having good supervision, no matter where you are in your career as a social worker, is critical to your job," she asserts. "I truly believe it's essential, and it's something I feel very strongly about with my staff."

For Cox, graduation is the best opportunity to see her work pay off. "Every year at graduation, it's a wonderful feeling to see kids who have been struggling walk away with high school diplomas," she says. "It's incredible."

Meghan Williams is a contributing editor to Children's Voice.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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