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What I do: Bernice Springer-Richards, school social worker

New York Teacher
School Social Worker Bernice Springer-Richards

More than a decade as a school social worker, most recently at Brooklyn high schools, has only strengthened Bernice Springer-Richards’ belief that no student is beyond saving — certainly not while she’s on the case.

Why did you become a school social worker?

Because I never received the support I needed. I’m 48, and like many of us, back when we went to school there weren’t the services we provide today or the information about learning differences and how we could assist these children. You made it or you didn’t. That was it. And that wasn’t good.

Isn’t high school a little late to discover students have problems that keep them from learning?

High school is very hard for kids, academically and socially. To graduate from high school now, you need 44 credits and must be able to pass five Regents exams. Suddenly, issues that may have gone unnoticed or ignored become stark and must be attended to because the student can’t keep up. That’s when they need our support — and quickly.

At what point do you get involved?

A concerned parent, guidance counselor, school psychologist, or often teacher brings to my attention a student who, no matter the help in the classroom setting, can’t learn what they have to in order to graduate.

What do you do to help?

I am part of a school assessment team that includes myself, the school psychologist and the special education teacher at the Frank Macchiarola Educational Complex in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. I also work at two other schools. I meet with parents to begin the special education evaluation on their child, do classroom observations and assessments and fill out required paperwork so the students get the services they need to succeed academically. I also assist in creating and completing the requirements for Individualized Educational Programs that identify a student’s strengths and weaknesses. Finally, we create goals and accommodations, for example, modifying the curriculum or extending test-taking time.

Could you give examples of some of the challenges?

Oh, it can be many things. The student might have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, a traumatic brain injury, information-processing issues, severe anxiety or depression. In some cases, the student can’t learn the material; in others, the student learns the material but can’t retain it. I also do mandated counseling.

What does that entail?

Every Tuesday I go to one of my schools in the Ocean Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, where I meet individually with seven students that the school assessment team has decided need counseling. Each student comes to my office — well, my cubicle — and we talk for about 45 minutes.

About what?

A girl may be teased and feeling isolated. My role is to really listen. I’m there to validate her feelings and offer strategies for making friends. I can’t fix it, but I can help her fix it. I can give it the distance she can’t. Most of the kids leave me saying, ‘I never thought of it that way. I’ve never thought I could change this.’ The girls generally are interested in talking and learning about their feelings.

And the boys?

Boys, not so much. I get boys in mostly as a result of the girls. Maybe their girlfriends talk about counseling. So the boys are curious and want to see what’s up. Or they want to know who their girlfriend is spending time with. Doesn’t matter how they come to me — mandated or not — if they let me in, I’m here to help.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned that you wished you’d known when you started out?

My eyes are open to each student’s individual struggles. And I am far more patient and empathetic.

What is the most meaningful part of your job?

When I’m able to show a member of the school staff — be it a teacher, an assistant principal or anyone else — that there is more to the student than what they see in the building. I help them understand that the child is much more than what is seen through an academic lens. When I can make them understand the child through a social and emotional lens, too, then I’m helping both that child and the adults. When that happens, how can I not love my job?

— As told to reporter Christina Cheakalos

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