Derica Jackson – HHS Social Worker
Public education is in a time of transition. The days of strictly focusing on academic gains and academic performance are gone. School districts are evolving in ways that support the whole student rather than simply zeroing in on their scholastic production. Student discipline is expanding from an authoritarian mode to a relational model that focuses on restorative practices and conversation rather than punitive consequences. In order to navigate these shifts in educational philosophy and to better meet the needs of students, supports have to be in place in the school setting that can maximize the growth of students in every aspect of their educational lives.
In Haywood County Schools (HCS), social workers have been placed on each campus and across all grade bands to support students and students’ behavioral, emotional, and attendance needs. Social workers not only interact with students on a daily basis, but also stand in the gap between schools, parents, and communities to better facilitate communication among all parties.
Derica Jackson is the school social worker at Haywood High School, and her job is a lot cooler now than it was a few months ago…literally. Derica assumed this role this past January. Before that, however, she worked at LASCO Fittings and summers there were HOT.
“It’s actually been nice to work in a climate controlled environment,” Derica said, laughing. “There wasn’t any air conditioning at LASCO. In all seriousness, coming from an industrial culture to an educational setting has been great. It’s been great connecting with kids rather than adults. With adults, they pretty much have their life planned out for themselves, but there’s a lot of input you can provide to high school age kids.”
In her role as a school social worker, Derica is finally getting to put her college degree to use in the field in which she studied.
“I got my degree in social work from Union. I looked for social work jobs for a little while, but ended up at LASCO instead. When this opportunity came along to be a school social worker at the high school, I couldn’t pass it up,” she said.
Derica didn’t always intend on a career in social work. She had her sights set on being a nurse and even began a nursing pathway in college, but an afternoon drive with her dad changed her mind.
“I went to school to be a nurse, but one day I was driving with my dad and we passed an accident on the side of the road. I saw one of the people who had been involved in it standing next to the road and he was bleeding, and I realized at that moment I couldn’t handle that on a daily basis. I went to school the next day and changed my major,” she said.
What she’s found is that she’s still able to care for people even though she’s not a nurse.
“What I’ve realized, though, is that social workers are like nurses, too. We’re caregivers for the community. Nurses provide support for physical health, and we provide support for mental health and community health,” she explained.
In HCS, social workers are placed on each campus to spearhead a three-pronged approach to student support: attendance, behavior, and academics. The focus in the initial year of the program has been on attendance.
“When I came in January, there was a learning curve for the job and school attendance was very inconsistent in the high school. I stationed myself in the office a lot to see who was getting checked out early or coming in late. I started contacting parents and making sure that students have excused absences. I tell parents to just let us know if their student can’t be there,” Derica said.
Establishing relationships with parents and the community is an important part of the process for Derica and all the school social workers in the district. The relationships that are built allow the schools to have a liaison that can connect families with resources in the community.
“At first, parents were a little defensive. But I tell them that I’m trying to keep them away from juvenile court and get the students in school. Once I tell them that, they open up a lot and I gain their trust,” she said.
The process in place for school social workers to address and support parents who have chronically absent students is a tiered process that opens avenues of communication between school administration and families in order to make sure students are attending school as much as possible.
“After three unexcused absences, parents get a letter stating where we are. After five days absent, a letter is sent home again and a meeting is held with administrators, the school social worker, parents, and the student. We sit down and talk about why the student is missing and what we can all do to help support the family and student and make sure they’re getting to school,” explained Derica.
Derica has recognized that these meetings and conversations with parents are integral to informing parents of the importance of school attendance.
“I’ve also had to educate parents that attendance is kept every class period in high school. So, if a student is checked out early, an absence is entered. Several parents weren’t aware of that and they were getting calls from their students to be picked up early. Once the parents realized this was counting against attendance, they stopped doing it,” she said.
Not only is Derica communicating with parents, she’s also building relationships with students and making sure they feel supported when it comes to attending school.
“One morning, I picked a student up from home and arranged childcare for her child, so the student could attend school. Students can’t learn from home; they need to be in school,” Derica said. “I’ll also work with students during lunch or Tomcat Time if there are other issues they need some support with.”
While Derica has made an impact in her short time at Haywood High School, she’s very much looking forward to having a full school year to implement the full support of her role as a school social worker.
“It’ll help me a lot next year to be here starting in August. It’ll give me a chance to establish relationships with parents and students from the beginning of the year and really emphasize the importance of school attendance,” she explained.
In just a few, short months, Derica has established relationships with families and students and looks forward to building more bridges in August.
“We’re at a point now where parents will reach out to me and let me know if a student is running late or check to make sure their student is attending school,” she said.
Derica is adjusting to her new role and enjoying it. The families and students of Haywood High School are reaping the rewards, as well.