Home Features Prince William County Schools: Flunking the Stress Test

Prince William County Schools: Flunking the Stress Test

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Gar-Field High's Baseball field.

WOODBRIDGE, Va.– Sheri Danner sits in a small living room on a chilly afternoon. Beside her is a single mother with her two small children.

Danner’s eyes drift to the small clock in the corner of the room. She has 15 minutes until she needs to get back in the car to visit three more families before the end of the day, and she worries she might have miscalculated the traffic.

Danner is a social worker for the Comprehensive Child Study (CCS) program in Prince William County (PWC), Virginia. The program was created in 1996 to provide resources to students whose school performance is being affected by outside forces.

“If a family has multiple children, no employment, [is] facing eviction [or] their bills are overdue or if there are medical concerns and no doctors are established, the student might be referred to the CCS,” explains Forest Park High School social worker Marc DeAngelo. “They coordinate access to community resources, such as counseling and Medicaid for students and their families.”

The problem?

The county doesn’t have the human resources to meet the demand.

Gar-Field High School in Prince William County, VA. Photo by Karis Danner-McDonald.

“Prince William County has been expanding and growing so rapidly, resources just aren’t able to keep up,” says Danner. “There’s been such an increase in students and such an increase in needs.”

In 1996, Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS) had an enrollment of 48,639. In 2016, the enrollment had almost doubled, standing at 88,851.

“[PWC] schools are often over capacity and schools have to build trailers to accommodate the overflow of students,” says DeAngelo.

Hallways at any given high school in PWC are noticeably crammed with students. Many schools have had to supplement brick buildings with thin-walled portable classrooms.

Even though the rapid growth of the county’s population has led to a need for more space, administrators, teachers and social services, PWCS’  budget has yet to be returned to the level it was at prior to the 2007 recession when major cuts were made. 

“There’s been a new high school, there have been tons of new schools, but they haven’t added a new position. There’s six of us for the whole county,” says Danner.

As with the last 13 years, during the 2016-2017 school year, the 614 students involved in CCS were cared for by only six workers and almost 90 percent received no placement changes. 

After several more minutes of talking and looking at the clock, Danner finally leaves the mother’s house and hops in the car, already late for her next appointment.

As she waits at a red light, she pulls out her phone.

Between glances at the heavy traffic, she tries to schedule a time to meet with an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher.

The Hispanic population of Prince William County increased by 198 percent from 2000-2010. In 2016, 34 percent of PWCS students were Hispanic.

About 23 percent of CCS cases are ESOL students, most of whom come from Spanish-speaking families. 

Danner doesn’t speak Spanish, so having an ESOL teacher act as a translator when meeting with Spanish-speaking families is essential. Otherwise, she’ll have to resort to having a translator over the phone, which often causes confusion.

The language barriers CCS workers face when communicating with families who don’t speak English further complicate the already-difficult process. 

“It’s very tough because I’m not bilingual, and we don’t have any bilingual staff,” Danner says. “If I’m dealing with a mother, and she’s telling me her horrific story of being threatened by MS-13, and I have to have someone on the telephone translating? It’s not very personable.” 

Social workers also see increasing challenges as the number of CCS referrals per year steadily rise. 

A few years ago, Danner could contact a family in a day or two, but now her desk is covered with a thick layer of paper. 

“I have referrals on my desk I haven’t even touched yet,” she says. “There are some that have been there for about four weeks.”

But despite the recent setbacks, CCS’ early intervention has been beneficial to many students’ futures.

“Providing these families a case manager to walk them through community agencies and link them with supports has had tremendous effects on the students referred to the CCS. Often when the parents are less stressed, the students can worry less about their home situation and focus more in class,” DeAngelo says. 

Across the state border in Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is facing similar concerns with overpopulation of schools, and an increase in high-need students, albeit to a lesser extent. 

“A stressful home environment creates a lot of stress for a student which can begin to impact health and… schoolwork… All of that stuff ends up overlapping in multiple ways, and it can start impacting every section of a student’s life,” says Susanne Bray, a counselor at MCPS’ Montgomery Blair High School. 

CCS, PWCS and MCPS use counseling as a stress-management technique. Counseling provides a place where kids can feel safe and talk without fear, Bray says. 

“Counseling has been very beneficial. For a while, I had no idea how to manage my mental illness — it was very difficult. So a counselor was able to put it in perspective for me,” says Montgomery Blair High School student Elizabeth Olsson, who has been struggling with depression and anxiety for several years. “[My counselor] gave me a lot of techniques and tools to help improve my condition.”

Although counseling in MCPS is flourishing, the students within Prince William County’s CCS are slowly losing opportunities to benefit from counseling programs.

35 families is considered a manageable caseload for school social workers. Danner has 65. 

All day, she treks from neighborhood to neighborhood, working long hours to stretch PWC’s lacking resources.

Bray says a situation like this can be damaging.

“If you don’t have enough social workers, and their caseloads start doubling. They’re still servicing people, but they aren’t giving them the right quality of service.”

“The six CCS workers are overworked and constantly trying to meet the needs of their families,” says DeAngelo. “Although if their caseload was reduced, by hiring more workers, they could possibly stay with the families longer and make sure the changes that need to happen, happen.” 

“If you can find the money, and spend a little bit of that money on programs to help younger students at the beginning of their issues, you don’t have to do it later, when resolving those issues is less likely,” Bray says.

All the workers in PWC’s program feel the same way — if the school board can set aside more funds for the 614 students of the CCS, many of them would be able to lead safer and less chaotic lives.

After a slow drive, Danner finally pulls into the driveway of a squat house near Gar-Field High School. She’s ten minutes late and like before, already checking her watch for the next appointment as she walks to the door. 

CCS was founded to provide intensive care management and resources to struggling families, but with its growing understaffing issues, it has been struggling to reach its full potential. 

If CCS workers like Danner are stretching themselves too thin, are students really receiving the level of care and resources they need and deserve?

The workers say no, and that something needs to change. 

“If kids have a better education experience, it’s going to set the groundwork — not just academically, but socially and emotionally — for success,” says Danner. “That’s why the work the CCS does is so important. It changes lives.”

Gar-Field High School’s baseball field. Photo by Karis Danner-McDonald.

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