Why does the W-H Regional School District need social workers?
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes said it’s a question he frequently hears.
“We have seen over time an increase in the number of low-income students and students who qualify for free and reduced lunch,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner. “We’ve seen increased numbers of students from families that are not functioning in ways that really support students. Students are coming to school with issues and problems that 20 to 25 years ago we would have never thought possible.”
Principals from all seven W-H schools gave emotional testimony to the pain they see among children and adolescents in all economic levels in their schools whose needs are not being met.
They have had to find help for middle schoolers who cut themselves, suicidal students, children in custody of grandparents and students on the autism spectrum or who are dealing with crippling anxiety and depression — all while providing a quality education.
North River Collaborative has funded “very part-time” social workers for the elementary schools to share — and those principals lauded their work and dedication — but Gilbert-Whitner said more needs to be done.
Duval Principal Julie McKillop said her school has 16 pupils who have changed custody since June.
“Those children need to be supported throughout their day,” McKillop said. “That doesn’t shut off for those kids at 9 o’clock when the school day starts, and then start back up at 3 o’clock.”
School psychologists — there is one per school — are busy special ed testing, adjustment counseling and helping with social work, she said.
Conleey Principal Karen Downey noted her school is “into double digits with children who are DCF-involved” and counseling cases are increasing.
“I know you hear a lot about the opioid crisis,” Downey said. “That starts with these kids we can’t reach.”
At Hanson Middle School, Principal William Tranta said the problem goes beyond kids involved with DCF or the free and reduced lunch program.
“This is about all kids,” he said. “We’re seeing, in the middle schools, the results of the elementary schools not having the mental health support. … It’s about the social-emotional health of our students, not about what their income level is.”
Whitman Middle School Principal George Ferro agreed, but said the situation presents an opportunity to take action rather than being reactive.
“We’re taking kids from every walk of life, from every piece of life, from every socio-economic group, but it’s incumbent upon us as educators to take them where they’re at, give them the skills that they need to succeed not only in first grade, fifth grade, ninth grade, but for the rest off their life,” he said.
Unaddressed problems grow bigger as students move to higher grades, educators said.
“I’m the end game,” said High School Principal Jeffrey Szymaniak. “I see the results of what we haven’t supported.”
After six years at WHRHS, he said he can see there is a gap of students who hadn’t had basic needs met in the elementary and middle schools.
“I know last year we spent a lot of time talking about the transition room we built [at WHRHS] specifically for students coming out of hospitals and psychiatric hospitals back into the building,” said Administrator of Special Education and Pupil Personnel Services Dr. John Quealy. “I just wonder how many of those kids would have been prevented [from needing that] if we had social workers at the elementary level.”
School committee member Susan McSweeney said social workers allow teachers to focus on teaching.
Indian Head Principal Elaine White said depression and anxiety is a problem for a lot of kids, some needing hospitalization.
“All of those services we lost, I think we’re reaping the problems now, because here we have kids in high school who are unable to function,” she said.