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SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — Just before 7:20 a.m. on the day before February break, the black Ford SUV was the first vehicle to pull into the school parking lot. Inside, Nathaniel Wylie listened to the last refrains of the gospel praise song “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” before turning off the engine and heading inside the beige brick building. His morning playlist always consists of something uplifting, including the occasional motivational speaker.

“I love rap, I love hip hop, but I save that for after work,” he said. “I listen to something positive, something motivational for the morning so that I can carry that throughout the day.”

Wylie’s day began before dawn with an hour-long workout in the gym he built in his garage. He works prayer and meditation in with the weights. He doesn’t eat breakfast. At midday, he eats alone in his office inside the Washington Irving Educational Center, trying to stay mindful. Self-care is important to the 46-year-old school social worker — always a stressful job that a Covid-driven mental health crisis made more difficult. “I think it’s important to do what you need to do first so that you can pay it forward,” he said.

school social worker
Diversion social worker Nathaniel Wylie prepares for the arrival of his first therapy group of the day. He and the Schenectady City School District’s only other diversion social worker hold eight group sessions weekly over the course of four days. Credit: Peggy Barmore for The Hechinger Report

It’s a discipline seeded in his teens when a football coach took him under his wing. “If you follow me,” the coach said to him, “if you do what I tell you to do in regard to school — education — here, I can help you make a better life for yourself.” The advice worked so well for Wylie — “a kid growing up in the projects with a single parent, without a role model” — that he has made a career of working with young people “to break the chain of poverty, of violence, of oppression.”

The pandemic has thrust student mental health into the spotlight. Students, their parents and guardians, and educators continue to grapple with the stress, depression, frustration and grief stemming from closed schools, lost jobs and wages, death of loved ones and prolonged uncertainty caused by Covid. The nation’s estimated 143,000 school social workers are on the front lines.

Although the need for mental health support is high, some school districts are cutting social worker positions due to budget constraints, adding to the workload of those who remain. But other districts, like the Schenectady City School District near Albany, New York, are ramping up social work services to address the need, including a relatively new program targeting kids who land in trouble for the sometimes destructive reactions to the trauma they’ve experienced.

The Schenectady district fortified its five-year-old diversion program in 2021 when it started to see more students, even those in middle school, landing in long-term suspension because of post-pandemic behavior problems after they returned to in-person learning. Wylie, who has trained in therapeutic crisis intervention, now works with kids in grades 6 to 12 who have been suspended from their home schools and are attending tutoring at the district’s Washington Irving Educational Center, where the diversion program is housed. He helps students learn to manage the behavior that led to their suspension — usually fighting, drug or weapon possession, or assaulting a school staff member or administrator.

“These are students who behave in ways that, if they were outside of the school building and a police officer was around, they’d probably get arrested,” Wylie said.

Related: How one school is coping with mental health

Wylie, a married father of three teens, is one of two diversion social workers in Schenectady. School diversion programs are still relatively new. Despite his 15 years as a high school social worker for the district and, before that, five years working in residential treatment facilities and a local clinic, Wylie took two weeks to research the concept before accepting the position at the start of the 2021school year.

Diversion programs like Schenectady’s allow districts to hold students accountable for their actions within the school community by turning suspensions into learning opportunities, bypassing the criminal justice system altogether. In exchange for agreeing not to contest school discipline charges, parents or guardians can opt students into the diversion program, keeping them connected to school and receiving school-based mental health services and supports with the possibility of a shortened suspension.

The idea for diversion programs originated in the criminal justice system, where they are still more common. Offenders who plead guilty and agree to participate in treatment and counseling may be allowed to avoid jail time. A growing number of school districts are adapting this idea as a way of keeping students with mental health issues off long-term suspensions and out of the juvenile justice system.

Schenectady’s diversion program is unusual, he said, because it strives to reduce students’ suspension time and get them back to their home school in the same academic year. “I know that other districts have a kid and will say to them, ‘You did this; you’re on probation; and we’ll see you next year.’ They don’t have anything to guide the students back on track within the same year.”

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Nathaniel Wylie, a diversion social worker for the Schenectady City School District, organizes student folders prior to the start of a group session on anger management. Credit: Peggy Barmore for The Hechinger Report

On this late-winter morning, Wylie exchanged pleasantries with the receptionist on his way to the main office to check for messages and pick up the walkie talkie he uses during the day to communicate with other staff. By 7:30, he was in his office, going through emails, checking for scheduled meetings, and tying up loose ends from the day before. Soft ambient music filled the space that also serves as his group therapy room. It helps him focus, he said. The soothing music is incongruous in this setting: Bright, institutional fluorescent lights shine harshly down on a patchwork of utilitarian tables arranged into one larger rectangle to accommodate the eight group sessions held there over the course of a week.

Twenty minutes later, Wylie lowered the volume on the music as he made the first of the 25 to 50 calls he estimates he places during the day. This call was to a relative on a student’s contact list, an attempt to locate a parent who was a no-show for a meeting a day earlier. Wylie apologized for calling so early, learned that the parent’s number had changed — a common occurrence during the pandemic — and was given a new, working number.

In the two hours before the 10:30 arrival of his first group session of the day, he meticulously organized the students’ individual work folders, readying them to hand to each student when they took their seats at the table. He also met with Jessica Ciaravino, the district’s other diversion social worker, to discuss the day’s caseload, and held the first of his daily online Emergency Response Team meetings.

Each student has a team comprised of an administrator and a social worker from the student’s home school, the student’s parent or guardian, and a parent liaison. Wylie and Ciaravino, who share a caseload, must provide an update at least monthly for each of the 120 students currently in the program. The number fluctuates as students go on and off suspension, but has been rising, according to Wylie. Students in the program must also attend three hours of tutoring the district provides — an hour more than the state requires.

The seven students who arrived promptly for the 10:30 aggression replacement therapy group are high schoolers who have come to work on anger management, developing social skills and moral reasoning. They sat quietly; masks covered the lower part of their faces and nearly all wore hoodies obscuring the rest.

Wylie was upbeat, calm and purposeful. He knew why each student had landed at the table and how far he could push each one. He addressed them by name and thanked them individually for whatever they were willing to share of their story in response to his questioning. No answer, no gesture was too small to merit thanks.

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Nathaniel Wylie, who is trained in therapeutic crisis intervention, works with students participating in an aggression replacement group therapy session on how to recognize and control anger and other behaviors that landed them on long-term suspension. Credit: Peggy Barmore for The Hechinger Report

He’s been where they are, he told those attending group for the first time, while asking for patience from those who had heard his story before. Raised by a single mother in the School Street Projects in Yonkers, N.Y., (the same neighborhood where rapper DMX grew up) he was arrested in ninth grade for knocking out a friend’s sister who slapped him in school — in front of friends and known and unknown enemies — for taking a piece of her gum. He described his swirling thoughts in that moment — wondering if he looked like a punk in front of the whole school, feeling the humiliation — all pulling his internal triggers as he became angrier and angrier until he struck out.

He shared his history to “make [the students] realize people make mistakes,” he said. The story led into a guided discussion with worksheets that ask students to identify their own triggers, how they react in response to being triggered, and the consequences. He reminded them that the most important thing they talk about during the 45-minute session isn’t just anger, it’s why they shouldn’t act out of anger, but “act on it,” and let those around them know that anger isn’t good for their relationship. He also admonished them to avoid being written up. The students in the program can’t afford to make any more mistakes — if they get into trouble while there, the length of their suspension could be doubled.

“Everything they talk about is between me and [them] … unless they’re being hurt or they’re going to hurt someone,” Wylie said. If harm is possible, he and his colleagues have a duty to warn Child Protective Services or those at risk of harm to ensure their safety.

Related: Parents fighting, teachers crying: Grownup stress is hitting kids hard

“Creating a culture of care, that’s been our focus,” said Andrea Tote-Freeman, assistant superintendent of student support services for the district. While the district was seeing a lot of mental health needs emerge pre-Covid, these needs increased during the pandemic, prompting administrators to enhance all the district’s school social work services. “Social work is that kind of go-to place when you’re dealing with a population that sometimes has a high level of trauma,” Tote-Freeman said.

A large number of district students have experienced one or more traumatic events, such as physical and emotional abuse, neglect, parental divorce, family dysfunction and poverty. Over 70 percent of Schenectady’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty. In contrast, only about 20 percent of Schenectady’s residents live in poverty. And while the city is 56 percent white, students of color account for 80 percent of its school enrollment,

Before the pandemic, the district’s social workers supported teachers in the classroom with lessons structured around social and emotional learning, helped students and families navigate crises, and connected them with community services. Now, they must also cover classroom staffing shortages and help colleagues struggling with mental health issues, along with helping students having difficulty returning to in-person learning.

Andrea Tote-Freeman, assistant superintendent of student support services for the Schenectady City School District, says “creating a culture of care” has been the focus of the district’s efforts around child and family wellbeing. Credit: Peggy Barmore for The Hechinger Report

“Staff are trying to build each other up and hang on until hopefully we can find our normal and semblance of calm … and our services and support, and investments and commitments we’re making to our students start to pay off,” Tote-Freeman said.

The diversion program is just one of the district’s student support services. With 57 school social workers (excluding a vacancy) for some 9,180 students, the district boasts a school social worker-to-student ratio of roughly 1:160, well below the recommended 1:250 ratio. Each class year in the district’s only high school has its own cohort of administrators, a social worker and a psychologist who all move with the student cohort over four years

The three middle schools each have at least one psychologist and two or more school social workers, and each of the 11 elementary schools has at least one school psychologist and two social workers. The district also has a crisis prevention team made up of a psychotherapist, clinical social workers and a licensed psychiatric nurse practitioner who can assess, evaluate and treat students.

“Leadership over time has invested and really understood the impact around trauma,” Tote-Freeman said. A lack of available support services and mental health care in the community led to the formation of the crisis prevention team in 2017, when young children experiencing mental health problems were being placed on home tutoring because their behavior didn’t allow them to be in the classroom and they were unable to connect with a community mental health care provider.

Student hospitalizations for mental health reasons have been more than halved in the five years since the Schenectady City School District implemented its diversion program and established a crisis intervention team. Credit: Graphic courtesy of Schenectady City School District

“We had kids who would go on tutoring because they were so in crisis in the classroom, and it was a matter of needing to get reconnected to mental health services, get back on their med regime, get introduced to their clinical supports,” Tote-Freeman said. “The goal of starting the team was to reduce that period of time so that [students] are not having to miss a beat in the classroom.”

Tote-Freeman credits the district’s investment in school social workers and counselors, its diversion program and the crisis prevention team for reducing student hospitalizations for mental health treatment. The district has more than halved the number of student mental health hospitalizations over the last five years, from 86 to 37.

Related: Nation’s skeletal school mental health network will be severely tested

As part of his responsibilities, Wylie works with parents, the student’s teachers and tutors, as well as school administrators to help them understand how to deal with students who are acting out. “Sometimes they trigger students, and they didn’t realize it,” he said. He provides them guidance on how to recognize student behaviors that might signal a potential outburst and skills to help “get them back down” and in control of their behavior.

Like their students, educators, staff and administrators have also experienced loss, depression and anxiety in the pandemic and that can affect how they do their jobs, said Christy McCoy, president of the School Social Work Association of America, an advocacy group for school social workers. “A lot of our job as social workers over the last two years is recognizing we needed to really have to help our adults just be grounded and regulated because if they’re not regulated, that impacts how they show up in the classroom,” she explained. “They then can unintentionally be triggering trauma and other behaviors.”

“Schenectady has figured it out,” McCoy said. She praised the district for investing in the right resources to ensure students have the academic and mental health supports they need, particularly its low ratio of social workers to students. “When you have a lower ratio like that,” she said, “school social workers can then not only be dealing with the needs of the moment, they can do a lot of preventative work as well.”

Schenectady City School District’s Washington Irving Educational Center is home to a unique diversion program dedicated to reducing student suspension time and returning students on long-term suspension back to their home schools in the same academic year. Credit: Peggy Barmore for The Hechinger Report

After the 10:30 group departed, Wylie and Ciaravino quickly collected folders and disinfected the tables, pens and pencils in preparation for an afternoon group on journaling. Any thought of a lunch break was dashed by the unscheduled arrival of a parent they had been trying unsuccessfully to reach.

While school social workers have some discretion over their schedules, much is beyond their control. They can be called upon to make home visits to parents who can’t get to school, or ride to the hospital in the ambulance with a student experiencing suicidal thoughts and, increasingly since the pandemic, to counsel colleagues struggling with their mental health. This spring, the district reintroduced free virtual counseling for students and their families, a program it first put in place during the pandemic. It allows students and their families access to a social worker weekends and evenings through August.

In the afternoon, Wylie made more phone calls to parents who didn’t show for meetings, admitted two new students into the diversion program, and delivered a discouraging report to a high schooler, the student’s mother and emergency response team members: The student wasn’t making sufficient progress. For a person who likes to stay positive, delivering that negative evaluation was the worst part of his day.

Related: Luring Covid-cautious parents back to school

Most of Wylie’s time was spent behind closed doors, in confidential meetings and conversations or on phone calls. Before the pandemic and his move to the diversion program, he had more informal interactions with students. He participated in a variety of afterschool programs offered by the district or its community partners to support students and their families — programs such as grief counseling for students who’ve experienced loss, a support group for young fathers, and the Peaceful Warriors Boxing Club. Wylie co-founded the group in 2008 and still co-coaches on Thursday afternoons with Rafael Medina, a school psychologist at the high school. Wylie and Medina run students through boxing drills interspersed with positive affirmations. The coed club, which is currently Wylie’s only after-school activity, was created to give students an outlet in response to the death by suicide of four high school students in a six-month period.

1:160 — the approximate ratio of school social workers to students in the Schenectady City School District

“I don’t know how many people really know what we do,” Wylie said. “Most [school social workers] are doing work like this on a daily basis.”

At 4 p.m., Wylie shut down his computer, stored his work cell phone for the evening (he doesn’t bring it home), and returned the walkie-talkie to the office.

Back in his SUV, he listened to Kanye West’s “Donda” album as he began to unwind. Once home, he checked in with his children, asking each what was the best and worst part of their day. Then, he changed out of his jeans, boots, and signature black shirt, tie and NY Yankees cap and into his sweats and a tee shirt. He had just a few hours to eat, unwind and grab some sleep before he was back on the front line.

This story about school social workers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter

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