Jackson County Public Schools recognized the role of school social workers during National School Social Work Week held March 1-7. JCPS employs six social workers to serve its nine schools.
The goal of school social workers is to identify and remove barriers to learning. They work as part of the student support team at each school to connect with families and ensure that essentials such as food, clothing and social-emotional needs are met.
School social workers do whatever it takes to help students be successful, Director of Student Support Services Kelly Doppke said.
“I’ve come to see social workers as these awesome problem solvers,” Doppke said. “They see a problem; they look for ways to solve it and they really empower teachers and students.”
The state provides less than a third of the funding needed for student support positions like school social workers, so Jackson County commissioners cover the shortfall from the local budget. Doppke expressed appreciation for the commitment by county officials to sustain student support and mental health services.
“If you think of how many counselors, social workers and nurses it takes to provide for the needs of our students, the state money doesn’t go very far,” Doppke said. “The county commissioners are closing the gap between what the state provides and what we see as critical needs in our district for student support.”
Even with extra local funding, smaller schools like Blue Ridge School and Blue Ridge Early College have difficulty qualifying for full-time support positions because of their small student population, she said.
To meet that need, the Blue Ridge Education Foundation and the Highlands-Cashiers Health Foundation provide funds for a full-time nurse and full-time social worker to serve those schools.
“We’re so grateful to them,” Doppke said. “The data we’re collecting is showing that it has really been successful. They are seeing reduced tardies and increased school attendance.”
School social workers are rarely in the spotlight, but the role they play benefits children and their families beyond the classroom, she said.
Jessica Wheatley, social worker at Fairview School, said the best thing about her job is interacting with the students each day.
“I love getting to know them and building relationships with them,” Wheatley said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.