by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
“It’s Early. What’s going on?”
As the school bell rings to start a new day, Bridget Early gets a call on her walkie-talkie, the first of many. It’s often the way her day begins.
The Everett Middle School social worker’s role is helping to “defuse” tension throughout the campus — and support students living in poverty and challenging circumstances. She helps teachers focus on academics by running interference when a crisis occurs.
There’s no such thing as a typical day, but typical events include mediation, mentoring, meeting with parents, suicide assessment, contacting Children’s Protective Services, educating students about bullying and homophobia, and facilitating “community circles” for better communication. She supports teachers exhausted from working with a challenging population of children, many of whom are new to the country.
Many of the school’s new arrivals are rejoining a parent who came here years ago to make a better life, and reunification in a foreign country can be traumatic, she notes.
“My job is helping kids who are not having their basic needs met,” says Early, United Educators of San Francisco. “They are expected to sit in class and focus on school work and testing, when maybe the night before there was crazy domestic violence and shootings outside their window. Maybe they’re with a parent who is a stranger. It’s hard for them to come here and set all that aside.”
Every school in San Francisco has at least one part-time social worker, and Early is one of two at her school. Statewide, 430 school-based professionals carry the title of school social worker (SSW) for the 5 million-plus students ages 5-17. The California Association of School Social Workers recommended ratio of students to school social workers is 250 to 1.
She appreciates that her district values what she does. “I love my job and would never trade it for anything,” says Early, who sprints down the hallway to avoid being late.
8:10 — Students write something nice about the person next to them and pass it around during a “community circle” in the homeroom of eighth-grade teacher Alex Algones. Words like cool, awesome, nice, amazing and sweet elicit smiles. Students say “circle time” reduces bullying. “I’m so happy right now,” beams Demaya Connors, enjoying the nice things said about her.
8:40 — A boy suspended for slamming a door on a teacher’s hand is processed for re-entry to the school. Sullen and angry, he explains he intended to slam the door and call the teacher a name, but not hurt her. Early asks how the incident affected his classmates. He admits that they were scared and unable to learn. The teacher is brought in, and the boy apologizes. Early asks him about warning signs before he erupts into rage. He says he balls up his fists and feels like calling people names when he gets mad. He promises that the next time he feels angry he will visit Early at the Wellness Center to calm down.
8:50 — A boy strolls into the Wellness Center, anger emanating from his bulky frame. The student, who is emotionally disturbed, tells Early that he needs a break from his class. After a time-out and a few kind words, he’s ready to return. “Miss Early helps me calm down by motivating me to learn. She’s great at her job.”
9:30 — Early gets a call that a boy has caused a disruption. In the hallway he explains that he found a dead bug, picked it up and put it on a girl’s desk. His teacher made him call his father. “I didn’t do it on purpose. Well, maybe kind of on purpose,” he says, looking remorseful. “I know I was trying to be funny, but it affected my teacher, and I disappointed her.” He promises not to do it again.
10:00 — Early rounds up at-risk students who call themselves the “Sixth Grade Mob,” asking if they’ll attend a meeting she has planned with the help of probation officers to deter them from gangs. One boy with an orange Mohawk says he doesn’t want to go. “Just trust me,” says Early. “Give it a try.” His reluctance soon turns to enthusiasm; he brings other students to Early, saying they will also benefit from the meeting.
10:30 — A boy comes to the Wellness Center, upset about “harassment.” He declines her offer of mediation, but seems calmer after a talk. He has suffered abuse by his father and is struggling with his mother, who won’t accept that he’s gay, says Early. She schedules him for a counseling session with a marriage and family therapist (MFT) interning at the school. Early spends a lot of time educating students about homophobia, and sponsors the Gay-Straight Alliance and the school’s gay pride week. Students come out to her, but are afraid to be open at this age.
11:00 — The “Sixth Grade Mob” members meet with “Red,” an ex-gang member, for a “scared straight” type of conversation. Most of them are “gang wannabes,” says Early, who hopes this talk might put them on a better path. Red describes being shot and stabbed numerous times and his “friends” abandoning him during recuperation and incarceration. “They were running in the streets and not there for me. A lot of people glorify the gang thing and think it’s cool, but it’s really not. Small things lead to big things.”
11:30 — Early contemplates how the presentation went. “I think it will affect some of them not at all, and some who want to look cool in front of their friends will go home tonight and really think about it. We can’t force them to make right decisions, but we can provide information to make right decisions.”
11:45 — A boy has been sent to Early for wearing blue shoes. Blue and red are banned as gang colors. Early uses masking tape to cover up the blue. “Obviously tape doesn’t solve the gang problem,” she says, winding tape around his shoes. “But it won’t trigger gang behavior in other kids.”
Noon — Early has pizza waiting for a new group of peer mediators. She trains them to handle disputes, welcome new students and give tours. She reminds them conflict resolution is confidential and not to be discussed publicly. She then takes photos of the mediators, some of them flashing the peace sign for the camera.
12:30 — Early checks in with MFT intern Ali Howard, who has learned a lot from her mentor. “When I first came here, I was alarmed,” says Howard. “Bridget said ‘Reset your goals,’ and even getting some of these kids to come to school every day is a major accomplishment. It’s not about saving every kid and making life perfect. Sometimes kids just need to know that someone cares about them.”
1:15 — Two boys having a playground dispute are brought in by a security officer. One repeatedly kicked a ball at another. Swearwords and threats were exchanged. The boy hit by the ball agrees to make peace, but the one who kicked it laughs, rolls his head and mumbles more threats. Early asks if he is able to “move on,” and he repeatedly replies “I don’t care.” She suspects he is under the influence of something and asks the guard to remove him and investigate. Off he goes.
1:45 — Early returns phone calls to parents, grandparents, social service agencies and others seeking information about the well-being of students.
After school — Early attends a professional learning community meeting with staff and provides a sympathetic ear to stressed-out teachers. “Both my parents are public school teachers, so it’s important for me to support teachers. I seriously think that teaching is the most admirable job and that they need a space where they can talk about things. They need an outlet.” She also offers “wellness” sessions with teachers once a week during lunchtime.
4:00 — Early prepares to go home. “A lot of the problems I deal with are on a societal level,” she muses. “It trickles down to the school, and we try and fix it. Sometimes they come back years later and tell me I made a difference. For me, that’s the best part of the job.”
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