Dec 1, 2017

Interns Helping District Offer ‘Holistic’ Student Support

Cathy Ely (center) and the district's social media interns

There’s a lot more to educating a child than just reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Teachers and other educators know it’s critical to focus on the whole child, including the mental, emotional, and social challenges that occur inside and outside of the schools. Without supporting the foundations of children’s well being, getting kids to focus on learning can be an uphill slog.

Pickerington Schools is working to address some of those barriers to success through a partnership with The Ohio State University. The program, which is in its second full year, places social work majors in the schools to support existing staff and work with students and their families.

“We recognize that students have increasing societal stressors and challenges, and we have made a commitment to providing additional support to the students. One way to do that is to have a social work intern program,” said Cathy Ely, Pickerington Schools’ district-wide social worker.

During fall 2017, eight OSU students have been placed in the district’s high schools and junior high schools. These interns – seven of whom are working on their master’s degrees in school social work – have enabled the schools to provide significantly more student support in many critical areas. Much of their efforts are in support of the work being done by the district’s fulltime professional school counselors, who can feel spread thin by the number of students they serve.

“These interns fill an important role,” Ely said. “The district has programs in place, but we just don’t always have enough person-power to achieve everything we want to.”

The social work interns – who are in training for working with social-emotional, mental, and socioeconomic issues – act as additional safeguards to keep students from falling through the cracks.

“Our goal is that these social work interns become liaisons between home, school, and community,” Ely said. “We want to address concerns affecting the student and family directly, but we also want to provide links to resources and support that exist in the community.”

The issues that might be keeping students from meeting their academic potential are as diverse as the kids themselves. From mental stressors such as anxiety and depression, to issues in the home such as poverty or family strife, each child’s needs are distinct. The social work interns provide compassionate ears, eyes, and hearts to help those children cope.

Teri Kinsway, field education coordinator at the OSU College of Social Work, said this program benefits struggling students, school districts like Pickerington, and the interns. “It’s really a win-win situation,” Kinsway said. “The interns learn first-hand what it’s like to be a school social worker, and the win-win part happens when they’re actually contributing back to the district.”

OSU is one of just three programs in the state to offer a school social work licensure. One of the requirements for that program is to complete real-world experience, gained through internships. While Pickerington is not the only district to host OSU’s students, the district is making a significant commitment, with eight interns this semester and 15 scheduled for the first semester in 2018.

“Right now we’re focused on getting the interns into the junior high and high school levels,” Ely said. “We may look at other possible sites in the near future.” Additionally, school counselor interns are intentionally being sought to supplement programming efforts across the district.

The social work intern program is unique in its care team model approach. District school counselors, recognized by the state for their excellent programming, provide the connection and consultation to our interns at their specific sites, Ely said. Interns get to work with school counselors to participate in programs and plans that have been developed to help students. The interns learn the importance of working as a team to benefit students and families. The make up of a care team can vary, but members have the goal of promoting student success. Each member of the team is valued for his or her perspective and contribution.

The interns have been able to support a diversity of programming in the schools. In one of the junior high schools, for example, there has been a significant focus on empowerment groups for students. Such groups build student confidence and establish a sense of self among these young teens. At the other junior high school, there is a focus on applying physiological measures to help teach students to relax and overcome stressors and anxiety.

Much emphasis is placed on preparing students for college and career as well as supporting the social and emotional elements of a teenager’s life. “In the high schools, the interns have been able to provide support to attendance programs designed to keep kids coming to school to benefit from all aspects of programming,” Ely said.

It can be hard to quantify the success of a program like this, Ely said. Much of the success is measured through anecdotal information. One highly visible outcome from last school year was the Sandy Hook Promise activities, which included “Say Something” and “Start with Hello.” Social work interns made a significant contribution to implementing these campaigns, at the school and in the community.

“We know that if a student is not able to be able to focus, they’re not going to be able to learn,” Ely said. “What are the distractors this student is dealing with? Is it something that’s internal, like ADHD, or is it something that’s going on socially, or due to a lack of resources like food? We want to be able to address the behind–the-scenes issues and get that child prepared and ready to learn in the classroom. At a minimum, our interns can build a relationship with a student and be a point person, an advocate, a link to services. They can be that student’s person to connect with and to relate to.”