‘I am here, I care:’ How this Colorado school social worker heads off mistrust

Courtesy of Leah Williamson
Leah Williamson, a school social worker at Risley International Academy of Innovation, was named the 2023 Trailblazer of the Year by the Colorado School Social Work Association.

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat. Sign up for their newsletters at ckbe.at/newsletters

By Ann Schimke, Chalkbeat Colorado

Leah Williamson, a middle school social worker in the southern Colorado city of Pueblo, says some of her students have gone through more by age 14 than most adults do in a lifetime. They come from the city’s east side, where poverty and crime rates are high. 

They don’t “come from white picket fences, unicorns and glitter, and do not want to be treated as [if] they do,” she said. “They want love and attention.”

But since many of her students have a hard time trusting people, Williamson, who works at Risley International Academy of Innovation, tries to meet them where they are and get to know them as individuals. 

“Most are extremely proud to be ‘East-siders’ and need people to see them for who they are and where they come from,” she said. 

Williamson, who was named 2023 Trailblazer of the Year by the Colorado School Social Work Association, talked to Chalkbeat about her own school struggles, the effects of the pandemic on students, and her advice for parents who want to help their children with mental health issues.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a school social worker?

I actually had no intention of being a school social worker or working with kids. While I was completing my master’s degree internship with the counseling agency State of Grace, they placed me in the Pueblo 60 district. I loved it and realized I was able to connect with the kids. 

The district created a school social worker position and hired me to not only take on Risley but to show the need and establish what we can do. I knew then I had an important mission that would have a ripple effect and help every student and family in the district. Showing our worth ultimately led the district to hire nine more school social workers. 

How did your own school experiences impact you and shape your approach to your job?

I was not passionate about school and did not see the value. I was (and still am) horrible at math. It was not something that came easily to me, and I lost confidence in myself. My perspective was If I didn’t do it, I would not fail at it.

This seems to be the case with a lot of kids. They do not believe in themselves. If I can be that one person that believes in them and gets them to at least try, they generally surprise themselves and realize they can do it. Then they get excited and want more of the feelings of pride and accomplishment. And yes, I do share my story of middle through high school — almost not graduating high school to graduating early, then earning a master’s degree. 

As we emerge from the pandemic, what kinds of struggles do you see students facing? How do you help them?

The struggles are far deeper than being behind academically. Students have lost social and emotional skills, with communities like mine seeing extreme poverty, gang violence, and abuse. These kids need more than a teacher upset with them over a math assignment they didn’t complete. They need adults to understand and care why assignments aren’t complete.

I work hard to see and hear my students as well as be the connection between them and other adults in the building. I do not pretend students are someone they are not. They are all on the “rough side of town.” They also have goals, dreams, likes, and dislikes. 

I work hard to remove the stigma of mental health l. I encourage students to seek help, whether from me or an outside resource without worrying about what others think or how it looks. I let them know I am here, I care, and seeking support is OK.

Do you have suggestions for parents whose children may be facing struggles with mental health?

Talk about it. Do not be ashamed if you, as a parent, have mental health struggles or if your child struggles. Be direct, open, and listen to what they say. 

I encourage parents to get the resources they need, whether it is substance abuse support, mental health support, resources to help with finances, or parenting support. I use the “it takes a village” motto when it comes to raising kids and surviving this world.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?

Last school year, I had a student who came from a significantly broken and abusive home. She was angry at everything and everyone. She did not trust anyone. It took time, but I kept showing up. When she would lash out and push me away, I came back —  softer and with more compassion. I showed her I was not walking away or giving up on her. 

She still comes to visit me. She now believes she can not only graduate high school but has plans for college. She tells me when she is faced with a decision, she hears my voice. 

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in schools?

The same misconception that all social workers generally face: We are here to destroy your family and take your kids. This is especially hard if you are working with a family involved with the courts or the Department of Human Services. Showing families that you are an ally is one of the biggest obstacles. 

Sometimes helping staff understand exactly what you do and why can be challenging as well. Many think we are too soft and do not hold kids accountable when in reality, we do more than anyone. It just looks different.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Last year I also serviced an elementary school. I received a referral for a student who was on the autism spectrum and was extremely selective in who he communicated with. I was warned about his mother and told she was hostile and difficult. After working with her, I came to realize that staying neutral was key. I did not go into it with a bad attitude or assuming the worst. Instead, I offered all the love, support, and resources I could and was able to meet her needs, the needs of the school, and do what was best for the kiddo. 

What are you reading or listening to for enjoyment?

I am currently finishing “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk.

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at [email protected].

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.