Words From A Social Worker

Last Thursday at the Board meeting, the district presented a plan  that included proposed closures of 5 schools in Jeffco. First, let’s be clear that this was a district staff proposal and not a Board proposal since there seems to be confusion on social media whether that’s due to propaganda or just a lack of understanding.

The Board was seeing the information for the first time as well and it took everyone in the room by surprise as some of the schools had not been on the proposed closure list during the Facility Master Plan meetings last spring. That being new information is certainly a leadership issue for Jeffco and still no one knows how this came about. Kudos to the Board Members who brought this up as well as the surprise of immediately moving 6th graders to middle school for the Arvada and Wheat Ridge areas in 2017-2018 school year after indications to the community that this would be another year out.

We look to the Board for inclusion in these conversations as closing a school is closing a community, a family. Knowing that saving funds will be important due to 3A and 3B NOT being approved by the voters, extreme care and thoughtful conversations must take place and we must think with our minds before our hearts in these very difficult decisions.

This is not the first time Jeffco has faced school closures. One school social worker shared her experiences with the board and we are sharing that here as well for your consideration and hope that you will join us in advocacy to care for the communities at Swanson, Pennington, Peck, Pleasant View, and Stober.

Dear Board of Education:

First I would like to thank you for listening to the community, having thoughtful and respectful discussions about difficult issues and for being strong and gracious leaders. There are tough times happening and I wouldn’t switch places with you for anything.

I am writing to share some information that I learned and saw first hand when Zerger was closed. I was the School Social Worker at Zerger the last seven years it was open, the last five of those years I was split with Weber when the SED Center was moved there. I am in no way advocating for any school closures but I know you must consider them. There were things that happened when Zerger was closed that were horrible for kids and I would very much like to be sure that does not happen to any other students.

A year or so before Zerger was closed, Russell Elementary was closed. I had friends working there and while it was difficult, they said the fact that all the kids and most of the staff were moved into Arvada Middle to create Arvada K-8, it was a fairly easy transition as far as school closures go. I mention this because that was not our experience at Zerger.

After being told we were off the closure list for that year, we were blindsided when the decision came that Zerger would in fact be closed. The only information we were initially able to share with the students was that boundary lines would be redrawn and they would either attend Warder, Weber or Lukas Elementary Schools. I cannot remember the exact time frame, as it seemed to go on forever, but I’m fairly certain it was at least 4 weeks and maybe as long as 6 weeks between when we told our students we were being closed and when the district made decisions about what school students would now attend. At some point in the process, Warder was dropped and students were told it would be Weber or Lukas.

Dr. Stevenson often stated that college begins in kindergarten and we took that to heart. One of the community building things we did was get students excited about Pomona High School. Football players and other students came and met with students regularly and we were a proud feeder school for Pomona. Suddenly some unknown percentage of our students were looking at no longer being Pomona Panthers, but Standley Lake Gators. Nothing against the Standley Lake Community, but they were not part of the community we worked hard to create. Please, if possible, keep kids in their articulation area. It is also part of the school community.

The vast majority of our students had difficult moments dealing with the unknown of where they would attend school, but three students still stand out in my mind. I received three emails from different fifth grade girls during this period of not knowing new boundary lines. All were sent between midnight and three am and all had a similar request that I not let their parents know they were on line at that time but they were stressed and unable to sleep. One girl worried what would happen if her bullies ended up at her new school while her bystanders went to the other school, would she be bullied all year? She worried that being a new 6th grader would not allow her to develop new bystanders. Another girl was new to Zerger that year. She had been so happy that her parents had bought a townhouse and she was no longer facing changing schools so often. Zerger was her 7th school in 6 years of education. The news was devastating to her. She wondered if she had it in her to make friends, again, as she was fairly shy and friendships had taken a while to develop. She said students were always friendly but she finally had two “best friends” and if they went to the other school, what would she do? They wouldn’t even be reunited for middle school if they went to different school since they were facing different articulation areas. The third had a significant loss in her family and had come to rely on the staff for support. She was very afraid to not have the support of the Zerger staff. The time it took to inform students where they would be attending school was unacceptable and very harmful to the students and I plead with you to not do that to other students. Another consequence of the time lag is that parents went “school shopping” during this time. They wanted to be sure their student was in the school that best fit them and they worried that the district was taking so long. In the fall, when we were all in our new schools, I searched campus one evening. Our 288 students ended up in at least 18 schools and not all were in Jeffco! One student moved out of the district but the others open enrolled outside the district.

Once we had the information about where students would attend, we had to move quickly to provide transition activities for students, families, staff and the community. Some things seemed to help while others ended up making things more difficult. Here are my observations:

Helpful:

* We started with principals coming to Zerger and meeting with small groups to talk about the school and find similarities between Zerger and the new school. Students brain stormed questions ahead of time and all questions were answered.

* Next students went with their parents to an evening open house to see the new school and meet the staff.

* At Weber, Student Council requested to partner with Zerger Student Council for that evening. The students met after school prior to this event and teams of both Zerger and Weber stu co kids led tours of the building and welcomed kids and families. The Zerger stu co kids did not know the building but they knew the students and this helped in transitioning. I highly recommend doing this.

* Students spent a half day in their new school with students who would be their classmates the next year. They went on another tour of the building, got to play on the playground with their new classmates and got to meet teachers who would likely be in their grade level the next year. They had time to talk and ask questions in small and larger groups. They also had time to just be kids and play together.

* Provide a way for kids to stay in touch with their friends if they do not all move to same school. We made a community directory with parent permission, and we had 100% permission from families to share their contact information.

* Have someone speak to the student leaders of the new school about the importance of welcoming the new students. I was working half time at Weber and knew many of our leaders and asked them to please step up. It helped.

Not helpful:

* Because Weber was in the same articulation area as Zerger, many Weber staff knew the Zerger staff who were moving there and they were invited to a faculty meeting prior to the evening event. Due to scheduling, this was not able to occur at Lukas until after the evening event. Our teachers showed up to Lukas with the families and the staff did not know who they were. Therefore they were not welcomed the way that I know they would have liked to welcome them. It is very helpful for staff to know who to welcome as coworkers differently as who to welcome as families. Knowing the Lukas staff, they wanted to do this as well. It happened beautifully in August but that meeting night in May was difficult for Zerger staff. Please be sure this happens ahead of time if school closures occur.

* Lukas had more difficulty integrating new students and had issues such as Zerger versus Lukas games at recess. Engaging student council and student leaders seemed to prevent that at Weber, at least that is my guess.

* Lukas ended up with 599 students and you needed 600 to get a full time mental health provider. I was asked to come most of one day a week, after the October count, to support kids and did so but that building really needed someone full time.

Again, I am not in any way advocating for closing schools. I watched my beloved community be in essence ripped apart and I do not wish that upon anyone. If it must happen, I hope we can learn from what I believe were mistakes as well as what I saw be helpful.

Another big concern I have is the possible closing of the GT Center at Wheat Ridge High School. Several years ago, we had three new students in our SED Center who had been transitioned from day treatment programs. We were struggling to help these students and felt we were completely ineffective. We decided we had to do things differently and chose to do file reviews as our starting place. All three students were found to have IQ scores in the GT range but had never been identified as students who are gifted and talented.

The teacher and I set up a meeting with our Building Liaison for GT, Jenny Fredrickson, and for me this started the path to being Weber’s GT contact. I’m not sure what the titles are but thanks to Jenny, I took the district class called The Affective Needs of GT Students and then worked my way through the district classes, took the PLACE Test and became district certified in GT.

Learning about the unique profiles of twice exceptional students as well as students with asynchronous development and who have the over excitabilities as identified by Gregoric, we changed our interventions for our now identified as twice exceptional students and slowly, as we intervened more effectively for their specific needs, progress was made. I discovered just how steep my learning curve was for helping these students. This information was not taught in my social work program nor had I learned anything about it in my previous two districts or my first few years in Jeffco. I had been a school social worker, with great evaluations, for 11 or twelve years before I learned about how to help these students.

My point in telling you this is that people who work with gifted students have a unique skill set and different training than most. While some GT kids are high achieving and do not struggle social and emotionally, that is not true of another group of students. The students who I see in our SED Center and in our school who are twice exceptional, have asynchronous development or have over excitabilities, need people with that skill set to support them. The programs at NAMS and WRHS are often discussed with our Weber families as places our students can go and get the support they need as gifted learners.

Here is some information from an article on the SENG Webpage about Gifted Learners, Gifted Kids at Risk: Who’s Listening? (2011) Schuler, Patricia A.

“Research consistently shows that many gifted children and adolescents have the capacity for intensified thinking and feeling, as well as vivid imaginations. Whether they are gifted athletes, artists, musicians, intellectuals, or are highly creative, they may have higher levels of emotional development due to greater awareness and intensity of feeling. “Being different” in ability and personality characteristics may lead to higher expectations, jealousy, and resentment by adults and peers. Specific problems that may result can be external or internal:

  • Difficulty with social relationships
  • Refusal to do routine, repetitive assignments
  • Inappropriate criticism of others
  • Lack of awareness of impact on others
  • Lack of sufficient challenge in schoolwork
  • Depression (often manifested in boredom)
  • High levels of anxiety
  • Difficulty accepting criticism
  • Hiding talents to fit with peers
  • Nonconformity and resistance to authority
  • Excessive competitiveness
  • Isolation from peers
  • Low frustration tolerance
  • Poor study habits
  • Difficulty in selecting among a diversity of interests (Silverman, 1987)

For some gifted adolescents, acceptance by their peer group is the major source of stress in their lives. Repeatedly they hear the message “It’s okay to be smart, but it’s better if you are something else we can accept as well.”

I know one of my former students travels from the Pomona area to attend Wheat Ridge simply because of the GT Center. He was one of many students who initially did not have the support class on his schedule until the teachers chose to give up one of their planning periods in order to accommodate more students. This boy needs the support of this program. He needs teachers who understand his unique needs as a learner and who know effective ways to reach and motivate him. I have other students in middle schools who, at least as they left Weber, were planning to attend WRHS specifically for this program. These students have shown that when taught by teachers who “get them” and their needs, they succeed. When not, they struggle.

I hope there is a way to support this program as it benefits students from all over Jeffco, not just those in the Wheat Ridge area. Our high achieving students without the emotional and behavior challenges that sometimes go hand in hand with giftedness will most likely be fine in their neighborhood schools but there are many, many who desperately need people like the GT resource teachers at WRHS to be successful.

In closing, I would like to thank you for reading this and for your consideration. Again I have nothing but respect for you and the job you have done so far and I don’t envy your role. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Casey Gardner, MSSW

 

Thank you to Ms. Gardner for advocating for all students, as she always does. These will not be easy decisions or discussions but ultimately we must all keep in mind that the decisions must be made to serve ALL 86,000 students and not simply individual school communities or individual groups of students. We’d like to have everything and every tool for every student but it’s just not a possibility with decreased funding.

Resources for our staff and students district wide have been reduced to the tune of $481,284,503 since 2009.