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Officials: 3rd Social Worker Needed in Darien Schools

Education officials asked the Darien Board of Education for money to hire a social worker to help students in the elementary schools, and cited an increased demand as the reason for the request.

There's been an increased demand over the past two years for a social worker in Darien's elementary schools, as school officials spend a lot of time and effort trying to cope with the demand, education officials say.

"It appears as if more of our students are exhibiting social, emotional and behavioral issues," Rita Ferri, principal of Hindley Elementary School, told the Board of Education in a budget presentation Tuesday evening.

Over the past two years, she said, an average of 18 to 20 students per year, along with their families, have been in crisis situations where they've needed serious help "outside of what our schools can provide."

She did not indicate how much of an increase that was over previous years. The superintendent of school's proposed budget for the next fiscal year (page 40) mentions 25 cases "in total" over "the past few years."

Administrators doing social work

School administrators, often reacting to a child who is either bothering other children or who simply won't do what's required in school, will come across situations where social work is needed, said Mary Michelson, principal at Tokeneke School.

Administrators then try to work with the family by putting them in touch with various social service agencies, then following up later to see if the agencies have been able to help. Those agencies might be nonprofit groups that serve Darien and surrounding communities, such as the Child Guidance Center, or they might be the state Department of Children and Families or even Darien police, Ferri said.

"These kinds of cases usually require them [administrators] to drop everything until they get them [families] linked up with the agencies and make sure the agencies are following through," said Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent for elementary education.

Asked by Heather Shea, a Board of Education member, whether or not the poor economy seemed to be a cause of the increased demand for social work, Schools Superintendent Stephen Falcone said the demand seemed to stem from a number of causes.

He said families may need help with domestic violence, substance abuse, problems related to finances, loss of jobs or housing, mental health problems of family members or divorce.

Proposal

Falcone's proposed 2012-2013 education budget includes $70,000 more in salary and benefits to hire a social worker for the town's elementary schools. In the 2007-2008 budget year, the elementary schools dropped a social worker position from the budget in favor of having school psychologists at each elementary school.

Although school psychologists counsel of individual students, something a social worker woud do, those employees focus more on evaluating students and working with special education planning for individual students, Pandolfo said.

Neither school psychologists nor school administrators are as familiar with outside social service agencies as a social worker would be, and they're hard-pressed to follow up later on to see that the outside agencies have been helpful, Michelson said.

Questions about alternatives

Clara Sartori, a member of the Board of Education, asked whether or not providing social work was more a town function than a function that should be provided by schools. There is already a town Department of Social Services, other board members pointed out.

Falcone and other education officials said the need for help is often first seen when a child behaves poorly in school, often interfering with the education of others and taking up the time of teachers and administrators.

"There's a close connection between what's going on at home and what's going on at school," he said.

Pandolfo said that a social worker in the schools would be working with teachers and administrators in a team effort while taking the lead in social work.

Darien High School and Middlesex Middle School each have a social worker. Matthew J. Byrnes, assistant superintendent for secondary schools, said those social workers are very busy with their cases and have little time to help with elementary school cases.

The new social worker position is proposed for the special education budget, although the students who would be helped are frequently not in special education, Michelson said.

Editor's note: The superintendent's proposed budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year is now available online in a PDF document at the Darien Public Schools website. There is also a copy of it attached to this article. Pages 39-40 discuss the request for a social worker in the elementary schools.

Chris Noe January 18, 2012 at 01:52 PM
Public education needs total reform. An easy example: Let's compare the two worlds. I am a carpenter I need to follow the National Building Code. My work is checked (or graded) by the building inspector. Public education writes the curriculum, they write and grade the tests. If the test scores come in "high" the teachers get a good grade. Please pardon me as I go off on another 'World according to Chris' rant. So, let me get this straight...The new social worker will be the one who says little Johnny needs medication because he's disruptive. The way I see it little Johnny is just fine it's the curriculum that needs to be changed. The curriculum will teach you General Custer was a hero when in fact he and his army needed to be slaughtered by the Indians and they were. But, this isn't the problem. Little Johnny is bored to death with the curriculum and this is why he is disruptive. Change the curriculum and Johnny does not need medication. Aptitude is the buzz-word of the day. The ever narrowing curriculum required to keep test scores high is the failure of this great country's education system. We can change this right here in Darien because we care enough about or kids to do so. In the new 'World according to Chris' school system education will be based on aptitude. The changes will require guys like Falcone and the unions to be eliminated and our kids will be off meds and probably use less drugs. Scary thought... The next election is 18 months away.

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