Preston school social worker settling into new role

Preston — One morning, new school social worker Leigh Reposa was watching students arrive at the Preston Veterans’ Memorial School and noticed a dad giving his kindergarten child an especially prolonged emotional hug.

Reposa approached gently. The family’s beloved dog had just died, the dad said, and it was the child’s first pet loss. He asked if the school could give the child a bit of support that day.

Since she started in November as Preston schools' first part-time social worker — Mondays at Preston Plains Middle School and Tuesdays at the middle school — Reposa has met with students, families, teachers, administrators and support staff on issues that affect children and their ability to learn.

Because of student confidentiality laws, Reposa could not discuss specifics of any cases. Issues include family illness or trauma, absenteeism, family and pet loss, family moves in and out of town and even a child who couldn’t sleep because the family’s new puppy whined all night.

She also is learning more about Preston. She went to the popular Scarecrow Festival in September and has attended various library and town programs. Preston is a close-knit community, she said. People know their neighbors and care about the town.

“The needs are no different than in urban towns,” Reposa said. “I’m working on relationship building and the trust factor.”

Reposa, 44, grew up in Rhode Island and earned her bachelor’s degree at Providence College in theology and political science. She worked for then-U.S. Sen. John Chafee in the Providence office and later in Washington, D.C. She then worked for the Washington Post subsidiary, Legi-Slate and the National Journal. She later worked in corporate human resources before earning her master's degree in social work at Rhode Island College.

Advocates of creating the first school social worker position faced a two-year budget battle. Opponents argued the small town did not need the expense.

Superintendent Roy Seitsinger, a strong advocate of incorporating social and emotional learning into everyday school experiences, first tried to put a part-time social worker into the 2018-19 school budget. The Board of Education boosted it to full-time, but reluctantly eliminated it as the budget was defeated twice in referendum.

Last spring, Seitsinger proposed a half-time social worker position. The board again was forced to cut the position to two days a week in another contentious budget process. The school budget again needed three referendums to pass, with $31,450 for the position.

Reposa said she hopes the community will realize her role is to support children, families and the school staff and is not adversarial.

Since he started in Preston in the 2017-18 school year, Seitsinger has held “kitchen table” talks with parents. He said he hopes to bring Reposa along for some of those talks this spring.

“I’m happy to meet with anyone, have a cup of coffee and explain my role,” Reposa said.

While Reposa didn’t start until November, her assistant, Amanda DiFrancesca, started her college graduate credit internship in Preston schools in September. A Preston native and 2014 Norwich Free Academy graduate, DiFrancesca represents the Preston school district’s first partnership with Southern Connecticut State University, where DiFrancesca is studying for her master’s degree in social work.

DiFrancesca works in Preston Mondays through Wednesdays through May.

“Having someone familiar with Preston, who knows the families and the experience of going from a small-town district to a college-like high school is a big plus,” Reposa said.

The two paired up last week to present a suicide prevention training program to about 25 teachers, administrators and support staff at the elementary school. They gave a similar presentation a week earlier at the middle school.

Teachers, school nurses, cafeteria workers, janitors and school bus drivers, Reposa said, can be critical eyes in noticing sudden changes in a student’s behavior. To illustrate, she and DiFrancesca faced each other for several seconds, then turned around and each changed three things about themselves — hair style, jacket zipped, removing jewelry — before turning back to face each other to try to figure out what was changed.

Reposa asked training program participants to do the same. School staff can notice when students make such changes and ask non-intrusive questions, she said. That shows they recognize a student’s individuality.

Reposa started another exercise she suggested teachers try with students — say your name and tell one thing no one would know by looking at you.

“I’m Leigh, and I’m adopted,” Reposa said. “Recently, I found my biological family and learned I’m one of six siblings."

Elementary school principal Ray Bernier and his middle school counterpart Ivy Davis-Tomczuk at the middle school welcomed the new social worker position. Both said they wished Reposa could be in their schools more than one day a week. Davis-Tomczuk said with the social worker, the schools can address issues quicker and reach out to families who might be struggling.

Reposa receives messages from school officials throughout the week. On Fridays she reviews issues she likely will face Monday. She checks with the resident state troopers and newspapers for possible issues, such as fires or accidents.

“We’ve never had a social worker before, so we’re able to address areas that either previously were addressed by the principal, the school psychologist or weren’t addressed at all," Davis-Tomczuk said. "The social worker reaches out to the parents, providing support, resources, and she mines the community for programs that they can benefit from and brings that to school. Everything from nutrition to cyber bullying, substance abuse, divorce and family issues.”

“One thing she is really taking on is truancy,” Bernier said. “There always seems to be some sort of thing causing a family’s child to be truant. That’s right up the social worker’s alley.”

Superintendent Seitsinger said the social worker is part of an effort to improve social and emotional learning in the two schools. Reposa is working closely with the schools’ crisis intervention team — administrators, nurses, school psychologists, special education director — to coordinate the social and emotional learning program.

At the end of the school year, Seitsinger will present a report to the school board on the social worker’s activities and the social and emotional learning program, successes, planned changes and what’s needed.

But he said he will not recommend adding hours and money in next year's budget for the social worker position.

c.bessette@theday.com

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