Societal problems through the school doors

Thursday, September 27, 2007
The Jackson School District social case staff of Laura Baugh, left, Shannon Stanek and Ruth Ward is larger than that of any other area school district. (Kit Doyle)

As students file into the cafeteria before school, a group of teachers and administrators file into the counselor's office.

"Who's first?" asks North Elementary principal David Gross.

A teacher names a student and shuffles her referral papers. "Dad is real concerned that his son is behind," she says. "His tests are awful. I can't get him to focus for more than a minute. He's not going to make it through the year. I even had his hearing tested because I was like, 'Can he hear me?'"

"Do you think he could sit through an hour of tutoring?" Laura Baugh asks. She makes a note to herself to check with the parents and arrange the one-on-one, after-school tutoring.

Another teacher begins, describing her student. He has a difficult time identifying letters. He only knows half the numbers he should for his age. He's had three bus referrals, and either rushes through his work or gives up quickly. Feces has been reported to be seen on the walls in his home. The parents do not have a home phone number. Class outbursts are hard to control.

"I don't know what to do at that point because I have 22 other kids," the teacher says.

The staff offers suggestions. Can he have a designated "quiet place" where he can go to reduce stimulation after an outburst, where the lights can be dimmed and music played? Can in-school counseling be arranged? Does he need tutoring?

After the Student Assistance Team meeting, Baugh schedules a time with Gross to visit the home.

Baugh is the newest addition to the Jackson School District's social worker department. Unlike Illinois, Missouri does not mandate school social workers. There are only 300 in the state, according to Missouri School Social Worker Association president Bruce Failla. Failla said the number may be inaccurate, however, because some schools do not use the term "social worker," instead opting for the less intimidating "family resource specialist" or "community liaison."

While Cape Girardeau public schools have no social workers, Jackson has added a third this school year.

Their role and responsibility is often a mystery to parents and community members, said assistant superintendent Dr. Rita Fisher. "I think a lot of people think, 'What do you need a social worker for?'" she said.

But Fisher says social workers are a proactive measure to catch problems before they turn into crises; issues from home affect students in school.

"Every societal problem comes through the school door," said Tiffany Parker, an instructor of social work at Southeast Missouri State University. "Whether it's poverty, lack of nutrition, or parent arguing at home, it all shows up."

School social workers wear many hats. They buy alarm clocks for parents whose children have been truant or tardy. They convince high schoolers not to drop out. After running Student Assistance Team meetings, they set up tutoring or counseling services. They run small group meetings to discuss issues like self-esteem, anger management or how to deal with a divorce. And school social workers provide connections to parents to the Salvation Army, work force center, doctors who accept patients on a sliding scale, or to food pantries.

"The social worker is the go-between the school and the families and other community agents," said Shannon Stanek, a social worker with the district for three years.

Stanek said social workers have become increasingly necessary with additional workloads put on counselors. Between teaching guidance curriculum, being used for special education services, and at the high school, arranging schedules and writing college referrals, Stanek said "counselors are swamped." She said she is able to delve deeper into the student and assist children who need more intense services.

"Whenever I have a child I feel is at risk, anything that raises concern -- they come in dirty all the time, they never have homework done, they make comments about home that alert me -- all I have to do is call my social worker," said Orchard Elementary teacher Martha Venable.

Jackson has a $100,000 budget for hiring tutors and for contracting out to New Vision Counseling to provide in-school student mental health counseling. The district gets money through a Missouri school health services grant. Stanek said she has six students at Orchard Drive Elementary utilizing the counseling service.

Ruth Ward, a school social worker in Jackson, said she provides counseling services most urgently to students at risk of dropping out. Jackson's dropout rate is about 2 percent.

"My goal is to do whatever I can to get students to graduation," she said.

In districts without social workers, such as Cape Girar-deau, responsibilities are divided between teachers, counselors, nurses and special service staff. Deena Ring, director of special services, said districts have to prioritize within their budgets, but said she is in preliminary discussions on what needs social workers could meet in Cape Girardeau. There is currently an at-risk coordinator for the district, Carla Fee, who is also the director of the Alternative Education Center. Besides Jackson, Sikeston and Poplar Bluff are the only districts in the area with social workers.

Baugh cannot be technically called a school social worker because she holds a degree in criminal justice, not social work. But she has organized parent volunteers, parenting classes and a committee of students to improve school climate.

In a given day Baugh typically contacts three parents and completes one home visit a week. About 90 percent of her time is spent in the schools. "I have grown to love school lunches," she laughs.

As she walks the halls of the junior high, Baugh jokes with students in the cafeteria, pops into the in-school suspension room to see if anyone needs to talk to her and asks students in the computer lab how they are doing. Six weeks into the school year she already has 30 cases to manage.

"Kids grow up differently now. They grow up faster, and they have so many responsibilities and roles to play it can be overwhelming. It helps to know there is someone they can go to give them the attention and skills they need to succeed," she said.

lbavolek@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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