Lenora Oldham – HMS School 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.

For almost as long as she can remember, Lenora Oldham has been helping people.  When she was a teenager, she helped her mentally challenged uncle navigate everyday undertakings such as paying bills and making appointments.  From there, she entered the world of education as a substitute teacher, but soon found herself caring for students who were disabled.  Because of her life experience and early professional experience, the official transition to social work was fairly easy.

“I wanted to pursue a career in social work because it’s work I’ve been doing my whole life,” Lenora explained. “When I was young, I had an uncle who was mentally challenged and I lived with him and helped him.  I took him places, helped him pay bills.  I always found myself wanting to help people who had some type of disability.  That kind of life seemed normal to me.”

Lenora is finishing up her third year as the school social worker at Haywood Middle School (HMS).  Up until this year, she was the only school social worker in the entire district.  She is grateful for the added positions at each campus – both for the sake of the students as well as the added support she receives from her new teammates.

“Our social work team really cooperates well.  We do home visits together; we work with families who have children across the district.  We’re able to communicate necessary information that can help support students,” she explained.

While social workers are vital on each school campus in the district, Lenora’s position at the middle school is extremely valuable given the challenges that adolescence provides.

“At a middle school, my role is so important because this is the age where students are trying to find themselves; they’re in the middle of knowing and not knowing.  With those changes, I’m just here to support them as best as I can in navigating all those thoughts, feelings, and emotions,” Lenora said.

Along with helping students navigate the challenges of the transition that occurs during this time period in their lives, Lenora is also there to be an added support for the students’ families. 

Coming on the heels of COVID and the learning loss that occurred during the pandemic, making sure students are attending school is extremely important.  If students aren’t in class then the students can’t learn.  One of the main focuses of Lenora’s job as a school social worker is to make sure students are attending school.  Once that’s happening, she’s able to support other needs of the students, too.

“We really focus on attendance, academics, and behavior – in that order.  We look at every aspect of student needs – do they need clothes, food, other help?  We’re making sure students have what they need to succeed in the classroom,” she said.  “If the students aren’t here, they can’t learn.”

Building relationships with families outside of the school walls is something that has to be done in order for the position of social worker to be effective.  Lenora has found that visiting families at their homes has had been a more productive approach than just calling.

“Families have been very open in person, but over the phone there was some initial resistance.  Anytime the term ‘social worker’ is used, people get a little defensive.  Once I explain what my role is, though, families are very receptive to the help,” she explained.

Not only does Lenora support the needs of students at Haywood Middle School, she also has support from the guidance counselor at HMS.  They work in tandem to maximize their effectiveness at meeting student needs.

“To me, the difference between a guidance counselor and a social worker is that the guidance counselor deals with more administrative things at a school – testing, scheduling, 504 plans, etc.  My role as a social worker deals more with academic, social, and emotional support.  I’m checking with students on a daily basis to make sure they’re doing okay, but we all work together as a team to make sure we’re serving our students in the best way possible,” she said.

In the end, Lenora recognizes the importance of the role she plays; it’s essentially the role she’s played in different aspects of her life – the role of caregiver.