Sheffield Lake/Sheffield Village
by Michele Murphy
Editor’s note: We changed the names of the mother and student cited in this story to protect the identities of the entire family.
Andrew Smith smiles when he says he is bilingual because he is not talking about foreign languages. What he does mean is he is able to speak the language of an experienced classroom teacher and a clinically trained school social worker. This is vitally important to Smith, whose job with the Sheffield-Sheffield Lake City Schools puts him smack in the middle of building bridges between students, families and the community.
Smith has served as the district’s school social worker the past few years, but started his career in the district in 2000 teaching physical science at the middle school and coaching football.
During his first year, Smith and his colleagues encountered a student with “serious anger issues.” The interventions they knew did not work. Eventually, the young man died in what Smith calls an incident of “suicide by cop.”
He then encountered another young man who was caught in the middle of a family situation that caused children’s services to remove him from his home because his mother was using drugs. He was placed with relatives in the district but was moved again to a placement outside of Lorain County. Smith admits neither he, nor his colleagues, knew enough about the child welfare system to offer him the support he needed.
Smith refers to the two incidents as “trigger events.” He was acutely aware a student’s success in the classroom or life was tightly woven to the relationships that young person had or lacked. He enrolled in Cleveland State University’s Master of Social Work program figuring this would provide him knowledge of psycho-social needs of students with firm clinical training. He decided to add another year to his studies to earn a license in school social work, knowing the specialization would help him help his students.
That happened quickly when a chance encounter at a store with one of his students and his mom became a years-long working relationship. Mary (not her real name) says the school began calling her when her son Joe’s (not his real name) behavior in class became disrespectful. Initial efforts were met with resistance and things escalated at school and at home. Enter Andrew who, after meeting with the middle schooler and his mom, encouraged them to have him tested for Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Suspicions were confirmed and, for awhile, medication tamped down the behavior. Joe was then diagnosed with depression and placed on an additional medication.
However, like many on medication protocols, Joe began to skip taking his medicine, because he did not like the way it made him feel, according to Mary. She says she would watch Joe put a pill in his mouth, but realized he was spitting it out as soon as she looked away because his behavior again deteriorated. More trouble followed, this time spilling into the home as well as school. Mary had to call police and Joe took a swing at an officer, landing him in jail. The pattern kept repeating. He was removed from school and placed in a detention home. Mary says when he was compliant with his meds, things were fine.
She also says Andrew Smith was with her every step of the way and never gave up on Joe, or her. “He helped get us to outside resources,” she says, admitting she did not have a clue where to turn or that the resources even existed.
Joe has graduated from Brookside. He has a job, but still has slips from time to time, according to his mom. “He’s in a good place right now,” says Mary, while acknowledging that can change quickly. Smith says his experience with this family, which he calls his “most extreme” case, taught him a great deal, especially about the outside resources available to other “Joes” and their families.
Actually, Smith spends a fair amount of time outside of the office meeting with providers, whether individuals or organizations. He is in a unique position to truly understand the services they deliver and their approach to treatment. After all, he speaks their language. This makes him a valuable asset in connecting Sheffield’s kids and families to the right provider.
He says the kids he works with sometimes just need a trusted adult to talk with to sort through decisions they need to make. Smith says he makes it a point to make no judgments. They problem-solve; sometimes they role-play. Some kids need to talk about friendships or a relationship with a teacher. Others need to talk about things at home that can range from communication issues with parents, family finances, divorce, or conflicts with siblings. He stresses there is “no cookie cutter approach” to working with a student, a group of students or their families.
A high percentage of families are eager for support, and “get on board and engage” in dealing with whatever the issue might be, according to Smith.
This is totally compatible with the district’s goal to “alleviate barriers in students’ and families’ lives to get kids to be the best possible learners,” he says.
School social worker Andrew Smith is more than willing to sit at the table and serve as “lead interpreter” in making that happen.
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