By Kaitlin Louie
About Leandra Peloquin, MSW, PPSC: Leandra Peloquin is a school social worker at Notre Dame High School, a Catholic, private college preparatory school for girls located in San Jose, California. As a school social worker, Ms. Peloquin provides emotional counseling services and academic guidance to students. She also helps develop and implement presentations and trainings on adolescent mental health topics for school staff and parents.
Prior to her role at Notre Dame, Ms. Peloquin worked at San Jose’s YWCA Rape Crisis Center for over a decade, both in a counseling capacity and as the Director of the Center for two years. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Administration of Justice from San Jose State University in 2001, and her Masters of Social Work degree from San Jose State University in 2009. Through her MSW program, she also earned her Pupil Personnel Service Credential (PPSC), as school social work was her identified field of practice during her program. Ms. Peloquin completed her first field internship at Santa Clara County Juvenile Defenders, and her second field internship at the YWCA of Silicon Valley Counseling Department in San Jose, where she worked with students of San Jose High School and Peter Burnett Middle School as a school social worker.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Can you give an overview of the core responsibilities you have as a school social worker at Notre Dame High School? What kinds of challenges do your students face, and how do you support them and help them manage these challenges?
[Leandra Peloquin, MSW, PPSC] As a school social worker at Notre Dame High School I am one of 3 counselors that provide academic and personal counseling services to students. I am an Associate Clinical Social Worker and the two other counselors are Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists. We all provide academic and personal counseling services to students that fall within our assigned section of the alphabet. (We divide the students by alphabet in an effort to have an even student distribution.) We meet with each of our students at least once a semester. We have an open door policy and are able to meet with students more if wanted and/or necessary. Notre Dame High School highly values the counseling department services and considers counselors the primary point of contact for families. Notre Dame uses a holistic model for the counseling department, meaning we put emphasis on building relationships with our students in an effort to know them as a whole person and supporting them through high school. By having counseling services as a normal part of the culture of the school, it operates as a protective factor for the students. The better we know our students, the more likely they are to come seek support when needed. As well, in knowing our students, we are in a better position to support them in moving forward with their aspirations and goals.
Our position is twofold. First, we provide personal counseling services to students who are dealing with emotional difficulties. In assessing the needs of students who are referred for counseling we can provide triage for students in crisis and limited therapy for identified students with need. If a student is experiencing an on-going mental health issue or difficult personal situation that would warrant long-term therapeutic services, we refer the student and family to outside therapy services. We are able to assist students and families in connecting with those referrals. In addition, we serve as consultants to teachers when working with a student who is in crisis. Next, we support students academically, which includes developing a 4-year academic plan for students. We provide guidance regarding graduation requirements and college admission requirements when assisting students with course selection. We work with students who are struggling academically by providing in person support and connecting the student with appropriate campus resources.
Our role does include actively collaborating with our teachers, staff, administration, learning resource specialist and college counselor. We work collaboratively with our learning resource specialist for students who have specific learning needs. As the point of contact for families, we also have on-going communication with parents.
In addition, the counselors participate in the continuing growth of our mentoring program for students. Essentially, all students are assigned to a homeroom that is led by a teacher on campus. They remain a part of that homeroom for all four years, fostering positive relationships with peers and their teacher mentor. That is another protective factor built in for our students. In mentoring, students participate in a curriculum that encompasses three primary components. These include health and wellness, campus ministry and student leadership. Our counseling department participates in overseeing the health and wellness components of mentoring. In addition, our counseling department has developed curriculum for the freshman health course that provides education on mental and emotional health. In that curriculum we discuss the definitions of mental health, mental health disorders, stress and coping, feelings identification and self-esteem.
We also plan and facilitate presentations for faculty, staff and parents related to adolescent mental health and development. Finally, we coordinate health awareness programs for students to learn about many different issues that impact adolescents and our society as a whole. For instance, this year we are arranging for the YWCA Rape Crisis Center to speak to all classes about sexual violence and dating violence in April during Sexual Assault Awareness Month. We are fortunate to have the support of school administration to bring light to these very important issues for our student body, faculty and staff.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Notre Dame High School is a private preparatory school for girls only. In your experience, how does working for a private preparatory school differ from your previous school social work experiences at Burnett Middle School and San Jose High School?
[Leandra Peloquin, MSW, PPSC] My experience working for a private preparatory school differs from my previous social work experiences at Peter Burnett Middle School and San Jose High School. While in my masters program, I interned as a school social worker through the YWCA Counseling Department, where I was placed at Peter Burnett Middle School and San Jose High School. My role in the school was to provide therapeutic services to students referred through a referral process at each school. I was there on a limited basis, as I worked at San Jose High School two days a week and Peter Burnett Middle School one day a week. I saw approximately 5 to 6 students each day. These students came from a variety of backgrounds and were dealing with a variety of adverse experiences. I worked with both male and female students. Some of the issues addressed in counseling included trauma, abuse, anxiety, depression and other pertinent issues that adolescents face.
My interaction with school officials was minimal, with the exception of the administrative staff members who provided student referrals. Because I was not an employee of San Jose High School or Peter Burnett Middle School, my experience was in many ways different than my experience at Notre Dame High School. At Notre Dame I am responsible for working with over 200 students, where my role includes both personal and academic counseling. At the other two schools, I had a small caseload with an on-going therapeutic focus. I was not involved with the academics of students. In some cases I would act as a consultant to a teacher as it related to a student’s behavior in class, but I never provided academic planning. I had little interaction with the school as a system, as I was primarily focused on a small subset of individual students.
There were similarities in all of these school social worker positions in that I met with students for one on one counseling and advocated for students when needed. As it relates to the issues that present when meeting with students one on one, those were similar in all schools, as are faced by adolescents in general (trauma, depression, anxiety, difficulties in home environment, etc.).
Ultimately, my personal approaches in working with students are similar, in that I would do everything I could to meet their needs, provide a supportive and safe environment and provide advocacy when necessary. On the other hand, the methods I have utilized in meeting a student’s needs within the school system varied depending on the school and my role at the school. One example involves communication with teachers and administration. Because I am an employee at Notre Dame, teachers understand that if I request an accommodation for a student it is because something is going on to warrant that request. This assists us in maintaining confidentiality for our students. As well, being part of the system can assist in meeting the student’s needs more expediently.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Why did you decide to become a school social worker, and what have been some of your most rewarding experiences over the course of your career?
[Leandra Peloquin, MSW, PPSC] I work as a school social worker because I am very passionate about serving adolescents. In school settings, you are able to reach a wide range of students. As a school social worker, I am in a unique position to get to know students and be a consistent and accessible resource. I do understand that as a school social worker, you will not reach everyone, but I try to create a space where it is a possibility. Adolescence can be amazing and exciting, as well as confusing, difficult and painful. I feel very fortunate to be able to support students during this time in their lives. The most rewarding experiences that I have had working at Notre Dame have been the relationships that I have been able to build with students. The students I work with, as well as the student body as a whole, constantly impress me. Even if individuals are dealing with personal struggles and difficulties, the entire student body works very hard to promote a warm, welcoming and positive school climate. Along with faculty and staff, the kids themselves are responsible for making Notre Dame a school where young women can thrive!
Just as rewarding is knowing that I am a part of a school whose graduation outcomes include teaching the girls what they need to know for life. Upon graduating from Notre Dame, these young women will have had an environment that encourages them to be life-long learners, spiritual seekers, community leaders and justice advocates. Being part of a climate that highly values empowering girls as part of their foundation, and which integrates the theme of empowerment into every piece of its fabric (academically and otherwise), is a huge reward.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] On the other hand, what have been some of the most challenging aspects of your job as a school social worker?
[Leandra Peloquin, MSW, PPSC] One of the most challenging aspects of being a school social worker is knowing that there are students who are experiencing tremendous difficulty that I may never reach for one reason or another. Balancing the role of academic counselor and personal counselor is a part of that challenge. There are many hats to wear and things can change from day to day in what needs to be imminently addressed. There are times where there is a lot to accomplish in the way of academic planning for students, while concurrently, there are students that need to be seen because they are in crisis or experiencing personal difficulty. My previous work at a crisis center has helped me to balance the demands of a school social work position.
I have just over 200 students, which is below the ideal student to counselor ratio of 1/250. In that way, we are so fortunate to have a caseload that is manageable, where many school social workers have far higher numbers. I want to be sure I serve each one fully and to the best of my ability. In having a large number of students with a limited amount of time to build strong relationships, I focus on being very present with the time we do have. I place value on learning what their lives are like both in and out of school. I let them know that I can hear anything and focus on what is important to them. There can be a temptation to jump to problem solving right away when working in a school setting, and sometimes that is necessary. But other times, just being present and hearing students is what they are looking for and what they need.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] How do you recommend students who are interested in school social work prepare for the specific responsibilities and challenges of this profession?
[Leandra Peloquin, MSW, PPSC] My recommendation for students who are interested in school social work is to gain direct experience working in a school through an internship (field placement) or employment. In order to work as a school worker in a public school, one must have a Pupil Personnel Services Credential (PPSC). A PPSC is not required for Notre Dame because they are a private school. Although there are post-masters PPSC programs, from what I understand, it is more convenient to achieve this credential while going through your masters program. In my Masters program at San Jose State University, they offered school social work as one of the identified fields of practice. When students choose the school social work field of practice, they then must fulfill their field internship in a school setting. As well, you are required to take courses that focus on school social work. I was placed in schools through an organization, which is why my primary focus in my field placement was therapeutic. This role provided excellent clinical experience.
For those who want a more active role within the school setting, they can seek out a direct school field placement. (If they are at the same school for more than 2 days, they may have more of a role within the system.) There are benefits to both. For students who are not able to gain experience through a field internship or employment, I would recommend working or volunteering for a non-profit organization that serves youth where the social worker’s role is to also advocate for the adolescent in school settings.
Thank you Ms. Peloquin for your time and insights into school social work.