They are praised for going above-and-beyond to support students and families.
They work tirelessly behind the scenes to make connections and access additional resources.
They collaborate with teachers, administrators, school counselors, support staff and community agencies to remove barriers to education.
They are school social workers, and we celebrate their efforts during National School Social Work Week, March 6-12.
Linkhorn Park Elementary School principal Barbara Sessoms doesn’t hesitate to brag about school social workers with whom she has worked over the years.
“They are chauffeurs, couriers, counselors, teachers and bargain shoppers,” said Sessoms. “They are true givers of their time, energy and in some cases, finances. They truly make things happen.”
Even the overwhelming workload doesn’t deter social workers from being “willing to provide whatever support is necessary to meet the needs of students,” according to Green Run High School principal Todd Tarkenton.
Support ranges from securing food, clothing and transportation to home visits and crisis intervention.
“They have hearts bigger than I can describe. They’re going to go to whatever degree they need to in order to take care of their families,” said Gay Thomas, administrative coordinator in the division’s Office of Student Support Services.
Thomas has no shortage of examples of how school social workers are going the extra mile.
She noted that a high school student with a medical disability was a wheelchair user and could not ride the school bus because there was no paved access from his house to the street. Through a school social worker’s networking and advocating on the student’s behalf, the city provided a paved connection so the student would have easier access to the school bus from his home.
Another school social worker learned of terminally-ill student whose wish was to receive a Westie, or a West Highland white terrier, for Christmas. She made phone calls, posted requests online and was able to get a puppy for the child within a week, complete with veterinary care, food and supplies for at least one year.
“We once had an honor roll student who stopped coming to school,” recalled Thomas. “On a home visit with the school resource officer, the school social worker discovered the student’s brother was threatening her and made her stay home from school. They worked with the family and were able to ensure the student was safe and able to come back to school.”
Thomas added that she’s known school social workers to rent trucks to help families move, work with their churches to set up food pantries and provide financial assistance to help pay for summer school. This is in addition to their daily school responsibilities of assisting with special education committees, student response teams, homeless verification, truancy and other needs as requested.
“It is important to recognize when a student’s physical and emotional needs are not being met. Unstable housing and a lack of food, clothing or medical care can have a significant impact on a student’s academic success,” said school social worker Nancy Reckling. “We help reduce those barriers. School social workers create a bridge between the school and the home.”
School social worker Donna Whiteside describes their work as “an extension of the school.”
“Our profession helps the teacher better understand the student who is experiencing physical, psychological and emotional difficulties, [and we] help parents understand their vital role and address the barriers that make it difficult for a student to succeed,” said Whiteside.
Whiteside conducts countless home visits to keep parents informed and keep the lines of communication open.
“It’s rewarding when a parent is empowered and able to meet the basic needs for their family,” she said. “If I can help them achieve that sense of security and stability, then I know the children will be more successful in school.”
“For my high school students,” added Whiteside, “teaching them how to trust themselves and others despite the hardships and challenges is very rewarding.”
First Colonial High School principal Nancy Farrell describes her school’s social worker as “the bridge that connects First Colonial to all of its students and families.” From meeting with students in the school counseling office to delivering food in neighborhoods, Farrell says that school social workers are “an incredible asset to our school and the community we serve.”
Serving students as a school social worker rather than an elementary school teacher is a shift Kenya Jones made five years ago.
“I have always enjoyed helping others who are in need. After teaching students with a wide array of needs in the classroom, I wanted to be more involved in helping to meet their needs,” explained Jones.
“School Social Workers address issues such as truancy, homelessness, mental health concerns and other challenging environmental factors that students and families face,” added Jones. “We support parents and students, enhance their emotional well-being and help to improve their academic performance. It is rewarding when you can see progress being made.”
“Their influence is far-reaching and sometimes we aren’t made aware of just how far their influence goes,” noted Tim Sullivan, Bettie F. Williams Elementary School principal.
He credits his school social worker for making sure that students at his school receive backpacks filled with school supplies, new tennis shoes, food every weekend and presents at Christmas. She also collaborates with a local restaurant, Surf Rider, to ensure students in need enjoy a Thanksgiving meal.
“It is like she has a magic wand,” said Sullivan, “but the magic is in her hard work and her love of children. She is a gem.”