School social workers take on absenteeism

FAIRMONT – As the only two social workers at Fairmont Area Schools, Amy Becker and Michelle Thompson fill many different roles.

“We have to be pretty versatile,” Thompson said. “The main goal is to make sure kids have their basic needs met.”

Becker is in her first year with the district after spending 12 years at Human Services. Thompson has been a social worker for 10 years, the last three with the school.

Becker’s realm includes the 900 students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade at Fairmont Elementary School.

Thompson handles the 800 students in grades 7 through 12 at Fairmont Junior-Senior High.

The duo work hand in hand to ensure that all students have a positive academic career.

“We want to make school comfortable,” Becker said.

“Absenteeism – that’s the issue that connects us with the most kids,” Thompson said.

Fairmont’s two schools have different criteria for absenteeism, and the social workers have different guidelines for dealing with the issue, even though both work with students and parents.

“At the high school level, it’s problem-solving with the student,” Thompson said.

Students are deemed responsible enough to get themselves to school. If they don’t make it to class because they have car problems, they need to have a backup plan.

“We tell them: Here’s the card you were dealt. How do we help you get through it?”

Missing a specific number of days at the elementary school will prompt Becker to send letters to parents, followed up with a phone call.

“If a child is struggling, that can be hard for parents,” she said. “We want to know: ‘How we can help you and your family?'”

“We have so many great resources in our community,” Thompson said.

The social workers have various methods for dealing with chronic non-health-related absences: letters, phone calls, parent meetings, referrals to other resources, a rewards program, attendance contracts signed by the student and parents, and even a wake-up call featuring celebrity voices. In some instances, they said they “sometimes” have provided student transportation themselves.

In extreme cases, a student is referred to Human Services or Court Services. Students under the age of 12 are referred to Human Services, and those older than 12 are referred to Court Services.

Although absenteeism makes up a fair portion of their workload, the social workers also deal with other issues, such as social skills, bullying and even homelessness.

They report that bullying reports are decreasing, but homelessness – even in Fairmont – has to be handled. A child is considered homeless if he or she is not living with a parent.

During the fourth quarter, Becker and Thompson will start a “transition group” for sixth-grade students to prepare them for the 2014-15 school year, when they will move to the high school. The social workers will “tag team” at the end of the year and the beginning of the year. Thompson will become familiar to the current sixth-graders, while Becker will remain a familiar face when they become seventh-graders.

Both enjoy their jobs, their constant smiles an indication of that, but those grins ramp up when they talk about their achievements. For Becker, “seeing [students] using skills to make better choices” validates her work. For Thompson, “just seeing them graduate is fun to watch.”