Project LAUNCH at The Plains Elementary

Another way in which Integrating Professionals for Appalachian Children's (IPAC) care coordination mission and their affiliated Project LAUNCH efforts seek to connect families and schools to other agencies and each other is by supporting a school social worker in The Plains Elementary School. Diane Stock has been a social worker since 1987 and has always worked with women and children poverty issues. She worked in Columbus for years with the YWC and a childcare homeless program, providing parenting classes in a homeless shelter, work with the Aids Task force and work in a domestic violence shelter. She currently works for Athens County Children's Services and as part of this work and with LAUNCH support she works 4 days a week at The Plains Elementary School.

When asked about her efforts in care coordination, Diane explains that she works as a resource for the teachers and administrators. A lot of families need help acquiring basic needs, since a high percentage of students at The Plains, 87%, meet free and reduced lunch requirements. Typically a teacher or administrator refers to Diane if there is a concern with a family or child. Basic needs and mental health services are recommended after meeting with families, and depending on level of functioning with parents, a conference can lead to referrals to other agencies. Diane says that a part of her job is mental health referrals and consulting with parents who are frustrated with behavior. One of her goals with the position is to show that the school is part of the community, and teachers and Diane make regular home visits and really get involved with the families. “I can give phone numbers to other agencies or transport them to appointments and often go with them to advocate.”

This type of care coordination can really help with improved academic performance because basic needs are being met. Diane tag teams with Kate Ziff, the school counselor, who takes more counseling needs, and through LAUNCH, Diane works with the younger grades to see to more basic types of needs and referrals. Diane has served 70 children this year with clothing, food, and school supplies out of 430 kids enrolled at The Plains.

“In connecting through LAUNCH, I can call other people involved with agencies that are also a part of LAUNCH, such as Sue Meeks with the Family Navigator program and others who work with childhood trauma issues and autism.” Diane feels that it is really important to be able to consult with other professionals and having the resources available through LAUNCH has allowed her to continue her learning as a professional.

In a typical day, Diane's activities include seeing children regularly in her office to work on coping skills and managing stress and behavior on an ongoing basis; it allows the child a break from the classroom. Her strategy is to work with small group sessions that follow a curriculum that addresses coping skills and different levels of trauma that kids may still be experiencing. This builds support in their peer group and also makes school a safe and supportive place. “It is important for me to be at the school providing these services, to explain to teachers why kids may be acting this way and the trauma experienced at home, this process continues to show why the school is important for community connections.”

According to Diane, the impact of the program has led to instances of case management success or individual success. “I am seeing the individual families that I help, seeing the help they are receiving, it is lessening their level of crisis their kid is in with mental health issues, or with drug abuse issues they may have.”

However, when looking at the larger school community, Diane sees the school at times overwhelmed with the issues that affect families in poverty. The school and teachers still have the educational standards to be met, and “how can they relay the academic standard when the teacher has to deal with whether the kids have coats, if they have eaten that day, whether they witnessed abuse of a parent before attending school for the day, how does a child learn within this environment?” “There is so much crisis because of poverty, witnessing trauma everyday.”

In Diane's professional opinion, a social worker is needed in the school at all times, because the needs of disadvantaged kids continues to grow, and the role provides a bigger support staff to meet the academic standards. “The 3rd Grade Guarantee is making things harder for schools like The Plains, they must spend so much time documenting the problems and they can't meet the standards.”

Diane's true role is to assist teachers with these basic issues for the children and families, things such as acquiring shoes for a child who still wears flip-flops in November, or other basic needs like arranging for glasses or food. She works as part of the team staff and helps to alleviate the burden of the classroom teacher who must teach for the entire day to the whole class and there is little room to act as a social worker for kids in crisis when standards must be met.

Heather Skinner, The Plains Elementary school principal for three years and teacher for nine years, reiterates the importance of Diane's role as school social worker. “We did not have a school social worker historically and having the opportunity to have a social worker now, especially Diane, to talk with our families, has been a very valuable piece in dealing with parents.” Heather says that parents can sometimes see the school as the enemy, but Diane's work at the school has broken down barriers because she uses a language that is calming, and puts families in poverty at ease to not be fearful to share their situations and to use the school as a resource for unmet needs. Having the whole team approach of school psychologists, school counselor, social worker and teachers has been beneficial for the school.

When asked about what she would like the public and policy makers to understand about the importance of programs like Project LAUNCH at her school, Heather responded that she doesn't think they truly understand the area we are in and problems that families have on a daily basis. There are limited resources as a district and the school is not always able to provide what is necessary, and the outside world of poverty really affects the education system.

“The legislators need to understand what poverty does to education for kids, they may not have eaten since the last day in school, they may not be sleeping in beds at night, moving around from house to house, living with grandparents trying to help raise kids, and often older siblings are taking care of younger children, this makes it difficult to do well in school.”

As an educator in Southeast Ohio experiencing the effects of the poverty of the region, Heather feels that legislators can help reduce the pressures by changing requirements for the 3rd Grade Guarantee, for mandatory testing, and for new teacher evaluations. “We have forgotten the kids, not enough time is spent on kids' social and emotional side, the bottom line is that kids have to perform, but we aren't thinking why they can't.”

According to Heather, it isn't that schools and what is being taught has changed, it is a break down of strong family support that has changed. She feels that teachers are doing their jobs and teaching a strong curriculum, but the class room dynamic has changed with more children with behavior and learning issues due to the effects of poverty, and this makes it easy to blame the teachers and schools when standards aren't met. “The state and the national government need to realize that it is society that is changing, things that used to matter, like families working on homework together, attending school activities together, basic values have changed in the family, families in poverty have a harder time maintaining the lifestyles to be successful.”

Poverty has increased greatly in The Plains in the last ten years, there are more transient kids living in apartments as opposed to more affluent families who remain, but their kids have aged out of the public school system. A new found barrier is the lack of landline telephones that most families once had, they are using cell phones with paid minutes and often don't have the resources to buy more minutes and this makes contacting parents difficult. More than 80% of the school population is below the poverty line.

Some of the measures that Heather and the school are taking to address these changes and the affects of poverty are practicing a national model of a responsive classroom. This model incorporates the social and emotional side of students, combating classroom problems and behavior issues, and how they can have success academically if they have a sense of trust and feel a part of the community.

The challenges are working in an academic setting with expectations of kids in poverty that have huge life issues. “We are trying to create the school as part of the community, a part of the families' community, this is what helps build the foundation for successful learning.” The school provides a big piece of the kids' learning community. “This is the positive, and the staff who continue to care and to take the stories home with them.”