- Durham Public Schools
Overcoming Endless Barriers
Unsung: School Social Work Lightens Heavy Load for Many Students and Their Families
When students miss school, their parents can’t be reached, or their behavior changes, School Social Workers are the ones who dig at the root of the issue to get help. They are keenly aware that there’s usually a story behind a disengaged student. They are shining examples for human advocacy, and are the ones whose persistence can and will change the trajectory of their lives.
For many students– and teachers alike– School Social Worker Jerome Hallan, affectionately called “Mr. J.G.”, is a stellar example. He is depended upon to muscle through barriers to education. On any given day, he addresses a plethora of issues that range from basic needs to housing, mental health, transportation, and family and neighborhood or community issues.
“The barriers are endless,” he says.
But School Social Workers are committed to resolving the stubborn and not-so-stubborn issues that break down those barriers. Sometimes it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. Other times, the resources are at their fingertips and among each other.
“I definitely want to give a shoutout to all of my fellow school social work colleagues and emphasize how we lean on each other for support, case consultation, and guidance. ‘The best resource for social workers is other social workers'' is a quote I love.”
Another of those resources are co-located mental health service clinics, which provide on-site and virtual therapy at 53 schools including for the virtual academy, and at Carrington where Hallan is assigned. For those needing to be referred and for those who need additional case management support, Hallan facilitates that as well. But having therapists on site reduces the number of calls a School Social Worker has to make to find help.
But their work is not a two-step process. It’s a journey that begins with building relationships and rapport with students and their families. Hallan and his colleagues provide what they call “Tier 1” support for the general student population, providing one-on-one as well as on-demand interactive videos that facilitate mindfulness, breathing, and other activities, and availing themselves otherwise to ensure that barriers to learning are broken down.
The National Association for School Social Workers recommends a 1:250 ratio for School Social Workers. Here in the Durham Public Schools, school social workers are assigned to cover the entire student population. Ratios of school social workers to students are as high as 1:2000 and as low as 1:300.
Despite the caseload, School Social Workers persevere and lean on each other.
"The best resource for social workers is other social workers,” said Hallan.
The impact that School Social Workers have on student success is indisputable and ongoing. They serve as an outlet and listening ear, they teach life skills for addressing anxiety and depression, and they connect the dots behind the scenes. Those connections are long-lasting.
“I enjoy having strong relationships with parents. I can sense that they view me as a trusted person. I love hearing ‘Mr. J.B.’s got our back!’ It’s such a warm feeling, and it helps you push through the moment when you don’t feel like you’re making any progress,” said Hallan.
School social workers also strive to uncover and address issues of social injustice. “One of our Core Ethical Principles is to address issues of social injustice in whatever setting we work in. We strive to promote social justice and equity within each of our schools,” he said. He’s also seen changes in the social worker space since his tenure began four years ago in this profession, such as the stigma around mental illness, noticing an increase since his days as a student in the Durham Public Schools.
“All the research shows that we should continue to push,” said Hallan, noting the increased demand for mental health services globally due to the pandemic. “We treat physical health as a top priority, and I think mental health and social emotional health are priorities too.”
At Carrington on Fridays, the Cougar Care Center makes pre-recorded social and emotional wellbeing sessions available that provide best practices that are easy to perform anywhere at any time. Hallan’s four-square breathing exercise teaches students how to inhale and exhale properly to promote mindfulness and peace. Students have told him that the practices are beneficial to them.
For Hallan, testimonials like those and his connections with families keep him going. His entry into school social work was intentional. He enjoys professional growth and learning how government systems, society, and community are interwoven.
“I knew I wanted to do something to give back to the community I loved and grew up in. I’m still connected with mentors I had when I was a student,” he said.“This felt natural, like a good fit.” And working for the district is a family affair– his mother, wife, and sister are employed by the district.
When he joined the profession, he envisioned solely working with students, but quickly came to learn that engaging with parents and families is key to a school social worker’s success.
“I love it when families feel like school is a second home where they feel loved and supported. Our success is seeing students succeed academically, socially, and emotionally and grow up to become caring individuals who are able to do well in life.”