Every day IDEA Director of Student Support Services Melody Washington watches the news for tragedies in the community that might concern students at IDEA. If there’s a shooting, car accident, or house fire, chances are someone at IDEA knew someone who was affected. Concentrating on your schoolwork can be hard enough without the added emotional challenge of grief. Many scholars have experienced social and emotional challenges and trauma that have long-term ripple effects.
Fortunately, with a team of three clinical social workers, a school psychologist, and a consulting therapist, IDEA provides scholars, families, and teachers with robust clinical support. The clinical team helps scholars dealing with a wide range of behavioral and learning challenges, mental illness, and physical or medical issues.
In addition to helping individual scholars in crisis, Ms. Washington works with the special education department and the grade-level deans to make sure teachers and staff have the resources they need to help scholars with challenges.
Supporting scholars with special education needs
“We have a significant special education population,” explained social worker Yvette Brown. “We have to work with the family to help them understand the diagnosis and we have to work with the teachers to help them teach in a different way. We need to find ways to teach so the student can comprehend the lessons.”
“We really need parents to help us help their children by giving us more information,” explained Ms. Washington. “If a student is coming from another school with an IEP or 504 plan, we need to know before they start school so we can give them the support they need. Even if they didn’t have a formal plan, but they’ve had challenges, we want to know so we can support them. If a child has diabetes or sickle cell anemia or any medical condition, we need to know this so we can make sure they are healthy and protected at school.”
Social worker Tiffany Casey came to IDEA this school year with experience in DC schools and having earned her master’s degree in social work from Howard University. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Counseling. Ms. Casey works primarily with freshmen and seniors, including scholars who have 504 plans (which ensure scholars get accommodations in the classroom that they’re entitled to under the law), and scholars who are homeless.
Supporting scholars who are homeless, pregnant, or parenting
DC’s education office provides financial assistance for scholars who are homeless and their families. IDEA gives them uniforms and school supplies. “We have a washing machine and dryer downstairs. I always have snacks and water and they know where to come,” Ms. Casey said. For longer-term help, “we link families with resources such as TANF and Medicaid and connect them with the shelter system if they need it. Many scholars who are homeless don’t actually live in shelters, but with friends or relatives. We have a number of kids who call each other family because they’ve lived together.”
Ms. Casey was inspired to become a social worker after working with a school psychologist in college on research paper about the social and emotional effects of domestic violence on children. But the roots of her career go back even earlier. “When I was young, my mom had us do community service work,” she recalled. “It became a family thing to always give back and help others.”
Yvette Brown joined IDEA during the 2018-2019 school year as a social worker focused on working with sophomores and juniors, as well as scholars who are pregnant or parenting. “Students come in with questions about health and sex,” Ms. Brown said. “We work with the school nurse to get students the information and resources they need to help them make good choices and encourage them to discuss them with their parents. The DC Department of Health visits schools at the beginning of the year to screen students for sexually transmitted infections and provides information for students about how to stay healthy.”
Supporting scholars by modifying classroom lessons to accommodate different learning styles
Ms. Brown also spends time counseling individual scholars, doing classroom observations, and developing behavioral supports for scholars. “I go into the classroom to see what’s going on, and then I work with the teacher to figure out how to modify lesson plans or how to interact with scholars who have disabilities,” Ms. Brown explained. “I am also involved in a lot of IEP [individualized education plan] meetings and other meetings about students where I advocate for the student to make sure they get the help they need. I act as a link between the school and the parents.”
Before coming to IDEA, Ms. Brown worked with families whose children have special needs, helping them to access and follow through with services in the community. Prior to that she was an investigator with DC’s Child and Family Services Agency and its counterpart in New York City. “I was excited to come to IDEA,” she said. “Walking through the doors I felt the family environment here.” Ms. Brown earned her master’s degree in social work from Yeshiva University.
“Many of our students have attention deficit disorder,” explained Ms. Brown, “so we have to find avenues to keep them occupied and use that energy. They should be the ones passing out the pencils, clicking the computer to go to the next slide.”
Supporting scholars with mental health care services
School psychologist Jennifer Smith joined the IDEA staff this year after working with students in Florida schools. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s and specialist degrees in school psychology from Nova Southeastern University in Florida. “I like the process of helping scholars learn how to express their thoughts and feelings, so they can better understand themselves and increase their chances of success,” Ms. Smith explained.
Beyond providing in-school services, IDEA’s clinical team connects scholars and families with external resources, such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. New this school year is in-house counseling provided by social worker Alexis Alton of SMILE Therapeutic Services. Ms. Alton has done therapy, crisis intervention, behavior management, and related services for DC children and families for 15 years.
“I provide therapeutic services to individuals, groups, and families at IDEA,” explained Ms. Alton. Ms. Alton is at IDEA Monday through Friday during school hours but hopes to continue providing therapy to scholars and families during school breaks as well.
Ms. Alton works with scholars who are referred to her by Ms. Washington and the other clinical staff members. “Students come to me who could benefit from emotional and social support or have behavioral issues,” she said. “We bill through insurance, just like a medical appointment. Each student does have to have insurance, and we take Medicaid and Amerihealth. For those students who express a need for the service but don’t have insurance, we put them in a group setting so they can still benefit from some kind of therapy.”
Legally, students ages 14 and older can sign themselves up for counseling, but their parents need to provide insurance information, which they’re not always willing to do. “In our community, therapy is something people don’t feel like they need. They don’t want to feel like they have problems or want to discuss them. Their perception of what therapy is may be what they’ve seen on tv, or that they think I will tell them to take medication. That’s not my role. My role is to help students with their individual struggles. I make it clear that I’m here to help families, which makes them more comfortable. I’m not forcing anyone to see me. It’s up to them.” Ms. Alton meets twice a week with the rest of the clinical team to discuss the needs and progress of scholars they’re working with.
Supporting scholars through restorative justice
Ms. Alton and Dean Germaine Jenkins also facilitate a weekly girls restorative justice group. “We’re trying to help the girls repair relationships. Over the past two months we’ve seen a lot of growth. The students are able to express themselves and see their similarities. I’m trying to get them to understand that anger is hurt. I help them process why they were angry and try to give them other ways to respond to that besides fighting. We teach a whole bunch of different coping skills, stress release, and relaxation tips and techniques. We also help them process the past, so they don’t get angry at what someone has said or done because it reminds them of something someone else said or did in the past.”
While IDEA’s dedicated teachers and staff motivate scholars to learn and engage them in rigorous academic work, our hardworking clinical staff support the social, emotional, mental, and physical needs of our scholars so they will be able to learn.