ELKHART — School social workers don't spend much time in the limelight and are often considered the unsung heroes within a school community, school officials said.
To make sure their work doesn't go unnoticed, Elkhart Community Schools is shining the spotlight on the social workers at all 21 of its school buildings.
March is National Social Work Month, but the week of March 3-9 is designated School Social Work Week.
Natalie Bickel, supervisor of student services and attendance officer, who oversees social workers at ECS, said the district’s social workers work with hundreds of students and strive to focus on the whole child.
She said the social workers spend a lot of their time facilitating the engagement between students, staff, families and the community.
“Advocacy is a huge part of their job, being the voice of the child or the family forging the relationships,” she said. “They also link families and students to community resources, so they’re heavily involved with area agencies.”
The school social workers also work with the multi-disciplinary team at the schools to meet the academic, social and emotional challenges and then help the students feel supported, Bickel said.
Bickel sad the school social workers play a huge role in calming down students who may be disruptive to help create a more positive learning environment.
“If they work with them one on one or in a group setting with kids who have similar behavior issues, or similar triggers or outbursts, then a lot of times they divide-and-conquer and try to work through it,” Bickel said.
Often the social workers are doing a check in and check out with the students, meaning that the social workers office is typically the first place the students go when they enter the school building and the place they go before leaving school to check and see how the students are doing.
But the work of social workers doesn’t end when the student day ends, Superintendent Steve Thalheimer said.
They are often meeting with families and doing home visits at times when it works best for the parents and children, spending their time volunteering to help ensure students have everything they need, he said.
“Every day, our social workers put a great deal of care into the important work they do with students and families,” Thalheimer said. “We are truly appreciative of our school social workers and the work they do for our students, families and the communities.”
In the case of tragic events, social workers also have a major role, Bickel said.
In February, two students at two of the elementary schools passed away, for which the need for social workers was vital for many students, Bickel said.
“When we have a death, everyone wants to help in any way possible,” she said. “We’re getting tons of response with ‘what can I do to help, what do you need’… they’re very good in that term approach of willing to do whatever it takes to support not only our school but other schools and other staff.”
The district also has a team that comes out from Ryan’s Place, a not-for-profit organization in Goshen, that helps grieving children through the healing process.
“We call them for support and they bring a team and we put our team together because typically in tragic events, there’s usually a pretty outpouring of need not only for the staff but for the kids,” Bickel said.
Overall, social workers support the school and the people in it.
When necessary, Bickel said, they will help assist families in need of shelter, clothing and a variety of other activities intended to help assure that the students are in school under the best circumstances to be successful.
“They’re just the best,” Bickel said of the district’s social workers. “They really are a cool group of people and they work so hard. Social work is such a thankless job and they don’t expect praise or even ask for it. For them, it’s a calling.”
Throughout the week, the district’s staff is taking time to personally thank the social workers for the important work they do, school officials said.
The district has a formal celebration planned for its social workers on March 25.