Family In Crisis Turns To 'Everybody Matters,' A School Social Work Program In Paradise Valley Unified School District
Steven Mendez’s favorite subject in school is math. The 10-year-old is learning measurements and capacity right now.
What’s something he might measure?
“The length of my little sister’s hair,” he said looking over at her and smiling.
Mendez likes learning, he thinks it’s interesting, but two years ago, Mendez stopped wanting to go to school.
His dad was arrested, setting off months of uncertainty for Steven and his three siblings.
“It’s so hard for my kids because they love my husband and at this point we are fighting for him, but the process, it’s so slow,” said his mom, Ingrid Ramos.
“School is my kid’s second home.”
— Ingrid Ramos
Her husband is in immigration detention in Florence. Two years ago he was arrested and stood trial for accusations of child molestation and burglary. It ended in a mistrial and he took a plea deal for lesser crimes.
Ramos said while he was incarcerated his immigration status lapsed. She believes her husband is innocent.
Her youngest daughter, Dalene, who’s 7, wouldn’t sleep in her own bed. Steven refused to go to school. James, 8, cried whenever he lost track of his mom, even if she was just in the bathroom. Louis, 15, was angry.
“When this first happens, I don’t have the minimum idea how I will deal with this,” Ramos said. “I want to keep my kids safe and strong.”
Ramos turned to her neighborhood school, Aire Libre Elementary in Phoenix, for emotional support.
“School is my kid’s second home,” Ramos said.
Most of the 318 students at Aire Libre come from low-income families, so as a Title I school it gets extra federal money and can afford a part-time social worker.
“The greatest challenge is to meet the students greatest social and emotional needs before we can educate them, before they will open their minds to learning,” said Principal Janice Moore.
School social workers help children and their families develop coping skills for life’s biggest challenges. The local chapter of the School Social Work Association of America estimated less than a quarter of Arizona's schools have a social worker. There's 425-450 social workers for more than 2,000 public schools.
“Like other Arizona schools there’s never enough funding to support the students in the way that we want to with social and emotional support or counseling services,” said Kim Guerin, assistant superintendent of instruction in elementary schools.
Lori Madrid has been a social worker in the Paradise Valley Unified School District for seven years.
She said on an average day, she’d hear about 25 students who needed one-on-one attention.
“I could probably get to maybe 5 of them within the day which are the five with the biggest crisis of the day,” Madrid said.
Frustrated, Madrid turned to the social work students she taught at the Arizona State University School of Social Work. They needed real-life experience and the kids needed one-on-one attention.
“You have to go to administrators or leaders and say what’s happening isn’t working and it’s not OK,” Madrid said.
She asked the district to pilot an internship program in four schools.
Madrid called the program “Everybody Matters.”
She mentors the college interns who meet with students once a week for at least 10 weeks and teach them skills to reduce stress and improve their communication.
“We also kind of help kids understand there’s things in the world we can control and there’s things that we can’t,” Madrid said.
If a student comes in overwhelmed by their situation, intern Angela Duque-Parks starts simple.
“Let’s take some deep breaths, let’s figure this out together,” Duque-Parks said.
Then interns move on to activities approved by Madrid, they might include mindfulness exercises, playing games or writing letters.
“You’re actively making a difference while still learning,” said Deret Musselman, an intern with Everybody Matters.
The college students receive academic credit for their time working with Everybody Matters.
It’s difficult to research social work because of its complexity, but there are a few studies that show students benefit from social workers.
A 2013 study in the journal Children & Schools found school districts with social workers had more students graduating from high school.
Another study from the same year in the journal Social Work observed that third graders who took part in therapy-based activities had better self-esteem, self-control and behavior.
Lori Madrid has a simpler assessment: “The data is my eyes,” she said.
Madrid said another benefit that’s hard to measure. Parents don’t have to make an extra trip to get their students counseling or therapy services, they work with Everybody Matters within the school day.
“Often times if I were to make a referral for a child to receive services there’s no way that’s going to happen,” Madrid said. “It’s not because it’s a parents fault and that’s because life’s hard parents are working.”
The Everybody Matters program is now in 21 Paradise Valley schools.
The 57-year-old estimated that if she continues the program for the next 20 years, she can impact up to 20,000 kids in the district.
“That seems like a big number and I should be excited about that, but it’s not enough,” Madrid said. She plans to expand Everybody Matters, a nonprofit, into other districts and states.
Principal Moore said attendance and academic achievement is up since Everybody Matters came to the school three years ago.
Moore said the schools received a C rating from the state three years ago and last year it was one point away from being rated an A school. The Arizona Department of Education’s data says the school’s grade is under review.
The Paradise Valley Unified School District is currently considering closing the school and transferring many of its students to a nearby schools.
Moore also sees the difference on her student’s faces.
“They just light up when they see their intern in a purple Everybody Matters shirt coming just for them,” Moore said. “I think that’s what it's all about to, know that you have one caring adult in your corner.”
A Circle Of Support
After Ingrid came to Aire Libre and told Principal Janice Moore what happened, she convened a team of staff, including Lori Madrid, in a small conference room next to her office.
“We just circled around her and decided we were going to do everything we can to provide support to this family also knowing what we could do was limited.”
Ramos gave permission for her children to meet with the school’s part-time social worker and the interns of Everybody Matters.
“We just circled around her and decided we were going to do everything we can to provide support to this family ... ”
— Lori Madrid
With her husband away, Ramos runs his landscaping business and has to wrangle her kids on her own. She doesn’t have time to volunteer in the school or hike with her family like she used to.
Ramos said she’s thankful her kids have someone to talk to when she’s not there.
“They can write or they can draw something for their dad and that makes them happy,” Ramos said. “I do my best to make sure they are OK.”
When Steven meets with his Everybody Matters intern, they often throw a football or play a game.
“Sometimes you get too sad and you don’t want to talk about things,” Steven said. Over time, he started to open up. He said he doesn’t cry as much any more.
“I can express how I feel,” Steven said. “I somehow gain the courage.”