Stephanie Jones – SOA 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.

Unlike the other school social workers in Haywood County Schools, Stephanie Jones serves students who may or may not be at her school the entire year.

Stephanie is the school social worker at the Student Options Academy (SOA).  The SOA is an innovative, non-traditional learning environment that meets students and families where they are in order to provide a pathway to graduation.  The SOA also houses the Alternative Learning Center which is where students in grades 5-12 attend when they are suspended from their base schools.  Stephanie connects with each of these students while they are at the SOA, and her experience as a veteran social worker in different areas all over West Tennessee has prepared her to help students of all ages and backgrounds.

“My first job out of college was at Carey Counseling Center.  Then, I started working for Southwest CSA which was grandfathered into DCA.  Basically all over West Tennessee – north and south,” she said.  “I always wondered what it was like to be a school social worker, but I never really heard about one.  I had heard about school counselors, but not school social workers.  One of my coworkers was one of the first ones to leave and go to work in the school system; this was in Jackson.  And, that idea intrigued me.”

Social workers on the school level differ from school counselors, and even differ from clinical social workers.  School social workers focus on three prongs of education: attendance, behavior, and academics.  The main focus in the first year of the school social work program has been on attendance.  

“I heard Haywood County Schools was looking for social workers, but that the main focus would be truancy issues.  That was something I hadn’t really had a lot of experience with, but I knew I wanted to find out more about it,” Stephanie explained.  “I found out quickly that truancy isn’t ever just about truancy – it’s about the underlying issues that are causing truancy.  Those are the things in which I have experience.  You find out that a kid isn’t coming to school because of family issues or maybe the student has a baby and doesn’t have childcare for her baby.  So, now we’re looking for childcare so the student can come to school.  There are other, less dramatic situations, where students aren’t coming to school because they may be having social anxiety or issues with another student.  That’s where people like me can help the most – we can bridge the gap between school and home.”

The biggest difference in being a school social worker and a clinical social worker that Stephanie has experienced is in her work within the community and helping families connect with resources.

“My role in the schools is different because I’m working with the whole family and the whole community.  When I was working in a facility, it was more about just me working with the individual.  At the school, it’s all about me doing my best to connect students with organizations in the community that could help them.  I’m still helping students, but within the context of the community now rather than a facility,” she explained.

While Stephanie’s main focus is normally one of the three areas of emphasis, there are times when she can also use her same skill set she used as a clinical social worker.  

“I used to do group therapy in facilities, but I can also do that here, too.  The kids really seem to enjoy it,” she said.

Because each campus has its own school social worker, a team mindset formed amongst all the social workers in the inaugural year of the program.  Since the SOA has students who return to their base schools at various points during the school year, Stephanie keeps open lines of communication with the social workers at each school, especially the high school.

“I work closely with Derika Jackson, the social worker at the high school.  Some of our students here will transition back into the high school, so I still keep up with them when they go back.  It really helps that I have a good relationship with Derika,” Stephanie said.

Through communicating with families over the course of the school year, Stephanie has been able to find out information about challenges that specific families face that the school has no way of knowing.  She believes this is one of many positive aspects of the social work program in Haywood County Schools.

“Having a social worker on each campus is vital for student support and community communication.  Sometimes kids don’t come to school because they get kicked off the bus for fighting or they don’t have transportation to get to school.  As a social worker, I’m able to tap community resources or connect families with relatives or friends that can get the student to school.  I can be an advocate for them,” she explained.  “When I introduce myself to parents, I make sure to tell them that the main reason I’m here is to help them get their students to school and in class.  I’m trying to build a bridge from the school to the community and remove the negative stigma of seeing the school’s number coming up on their phone.  Communication on the front end is extremely important for supporting students.”

After the first year of the school social work program, social workers met to reflect on the successes they experienced this year and looked forward to helping more families in the school system as the program begins to reach deeper into the community.  Stephanie is excited to be part of that process.

“I see the program reaching into the community more.  With a program like this, we’re reaching into the community so much already.  When you’re dealing with attendance, you start finding out the reasons why kids aren’t attending school.  It could be a transportation issue – a car is broken down; a student is suspended from the bus.  It could be a social/emotional issue that’s happening at school and the student doesn’t want to face that.  These are things that we can help address and try and solve and it also helps the student get back into school,” she said.