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Social workers provide ‘bridge between school and home’

Montville — Sasha DiScuillo, a social worker in the school district here for two years, wears many hats and wouldn’t want it any other way.

Spending four days a week at Leonard J. Tyl Middle School and one at Mohegan Elementary, DiScuillo meets students individually to address a range of social, emotional, mental health and academic needs. She runs groups connecting children and teens going through similar tough situations, in school or at home, such as parents going through a divorce. She sits down to chat with families, referring them to outside agencies when needed, or sometimes just listening when a parent is struggling to pay bills or get a child to school on time. She works with student clubs to boost school climate and trains staff on how to assess risks and respond to students’ and parents’ concerns.

“I don’t like just sitting. It’s very go, go, go and never boring,” she said in a recent interview. “Social work in schools allows for many different aspects to be touched on. It’s education, family, support, and I like that all-encompassing feel.”

Now, at a time when school officials and researchers across the country and state are pushing for greater focus on social and emotional well-being, budget-strapped Montville has hired some much-needed backup for DiScuillo.

The school district, which has more than 2,000 students enrolled, recently hired a third full-time social worker, who will serve students at the two other elementary schools and the high school. Previously, some of the duties that a social worker may have performed at those schools would have been handled by counselors and school psychologists. One of the district’s social workers solely serves students at the Palmer Building, which houses the alternative high school program.

The Montville district, like many others, also has contracted out support services with mental health and other agencies, including United Community and Family Services, which has a health center and therapist at the high school.

But DiScuillo and Montville Assistant Superintendent Dianne Vumback said having in-house support services staff, while more costly, is invaluable and provides a sense of teamwork that improves the school climate. The new social worker position cost the district about $90,000 including benefits, according to the Board of Education’s 2019-20 budget.

Whether grappling with violence in the community, or increased news of school shootings nationwide, as well as social media bullying, students, parents and staff need greater support to navigate a range of issues, Vumback said. “For staff, there’s a lot of heavy issues that people are dealing with, and you go home wondering, ‘Did I do everything I could? There’s only one social worker here and she’s in the other building today.’ So how do we navigate that?”

DiScuillo said that an overwhelming majority of students are “engaged and very receptive.” Students more easily identify her as a support figure, she said, because she’s not a staff member who makes kids go anywhere “as a behavioral consequence.”

“They’re quick to bite, like, ‘Oh, this is a grownup to help. I have my own person,’” she said. “With parents and staff, it’s just having them know I’m someone they can trust. Having that relationship formed and they open up a little more.”

Graduation rates impacted

Montville isn’t alone in the need to boost support services staff.

Research conducted by the American School Counselor Association shows that fewer than 25 percent of school districts across Connecticut employ school counselors at all grade levels. A report on the research, released in February, shows Connecticut students in districts that have counselors in K-12 “produce higher graduation rates, higher college entrance and persistence rates, lower chronic absenteeism rates and fewer out-of-school suspensions” compared with districts that employ counselors in grades 6 through 12, but not in elementary schools. Almost 70 percent of districts with K-12 counselors reported graduation rates greater than 90 percent; just 45.8 percent of districts with no elementary school counselors reported graduation rates over 90 percent, the ASCA said.

“We’re no longer having students walk in the building, educate them and send them home,” said Vumback, a former Meriden middle school principal who noted many districts employ not only psychologists and counselors but social workers at every school. “We’re using social workers to connect that bridge between school and home, so that academically, socially and emotionally, they (students) can learn.”

Peter Yazbak, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said “access to student support personnel is critical to student emotional well-being and success in school and beyond, particularly for students most in need of intervention and support in high-need districts.”

Yazbak noted that while professional associations recommend staff-to-student ratios, the state urges districts to staff based on “the unique characteristics and needs of the student population, as well as the available mental health services in the larger community.”

Groton Public Schools, an Alliance District — the state’s classification for its 33 lowest-performing districts, which each receive a boost in state funding — in recent years increased its social worker staff to nine to serve its 4,400 students, according to special education director Denise Doolittle. The district also employs 11 school psychologists for its nine schools.

Increases in support services came in response to the needs of children and families in a host of areas, including truancy, chronic absenteeism, mental health concerns, social media issues and “behavioral issues that impact the student’s educational process,” Doolittle said.

Social workers, counselors and psychologists “provide direct services to students using research-based curricula designed to improve students’ self-regulation, social skills, self-advocacy skills and coping strategies,” said Doolittle, who described the staff as “critically important.”

“They provide communication and collaboration with families, caregivers and community providers in order to ensure that all individuals working with the student are on the same page and calibrating their services for continuity and consistency,” she said.

Alliance Districts get support

Another Alliance District, Norwich Public Schools, which includes kindergarten through eighth grade, employs nine social workers, nine school psychologists and six counselors for its nearly 3,500 students.

Jamie Bender, Norwich’s director of special education, said the district recently improved support services, bringing in a program in the 2017-18 school year that helps students in need of clinical mental health treatment, allowing students to remain in the public middle school for services instead of being placed in a private clinical environment “which provided little to no interaction with typical peers.”

In 2018-19, the district increased its Board Certified Behavior Analyst personnel to four and created a Behavior Assessment Support Team, funded by grants, Bender said. BAST members develop behavior plans, model strategies and provide training to school personnel. Bender added that researchers at Texas Tech University recognized Norwich’s model and invited a BAST member to sit on a panel discussing school support at the Association of Behavior Analysis International conference last year.

Bender described the work of support services staff members as vital, noting they “bridge parents with community resources, represent the schools on community action groups, support attendance initiatives, assess students’ level of risk when concerns arise, provide recommendations for best practices in the classroom,” all while promoting social and emotional learning and treating students with mental health concerns.

Montville Superintendent Laurie Pallin said the district partially or fully funds some support staff through federal Title 1 grants, which help districts with high percentages of low-income families, and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act grants. Grant-funded positions include reading consultants, math coaches, special education teachers and program leaders, Pallin said.

“But we haven’t seen the increase in funding that Alliance Districts have,” she added. “We don’t have enough funding in those grants to support all the support service staff that we need. Though we are now really advocating for social workers, we do have a number of support staff in the district and have always prioritized providing students with the necessary support services.”

b.kail@theday.com

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