Published: Dec 04, 2012 06:00 PM
Modified: Dec 04, 2012 06:34 PM
Steve Sapienza can relate to the students at Apex High School who are struggling and feel like giving up. He was a high school dropout.
Sapienza later earned his high-school equivalency and eventually a masters degree in social work. He was recently named School Social Worker of the Year by the North Carolina School Social Workers Association.
The attendance he started two years ago gained Sapienza, one of only two high school social workers in Wake County schools, attention from his peers. Now he hopes more high schools will hire social workers who can identify and address students issues early on. Q: How does your attendance program work at Apex?.
Students are only allowed 10 absences per semester. Before I got here, there were 80 cases of students who had more than 10 absences. That first year, we got it down to the 20s, and the next semester, down to six.
When I first came to Apex, I asked teachers if I could call students into the hallway if I sent them right back in. I wanted students to know I noticed if they were there. Teachers were open to it. And (principal) Matthew. Wight gave me the freedom to create a validation program. Q: What is a validation program?
A student can stay after school for 90 minutes to help recoup one class period that he or she missed. They can work in the media center or visit a teacher if they need help in a particular subject. It is so important for a student not to give up.
I saw holes in our system, and I wanted students to be able to earn back the time. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Mr. Wight allowed us to have one math and one English teacher available to help these students. And the honor society students help tutor them in other subjects. Q: What are the most common reasons students miss school?
Good question. First of all, if the student isnt there, he cant learn. The good part about being a social worker in the school is that Im physically in the school. I find social work issues such as a student with diabetes who is having trouble waking up and getting to first period on time.
Sometimes, its as simple as an alarm clock. Or some kids are taking care of themselves mom and dad might have checked out.
There are girls who are pregnant.
My first question is always, What are the barriers? Why cant you get to class? I try to communicate that I care. It is important to have at least one person at school who cares. Q: So what do you do about it?
I print out the attendance list every day. I can identify problems early and address them. We get to the bottom of the problems very quickly.
At other high schools that dont have a social worker, the counselors plates are so full. Social work fits perfectly into the category of monitoring attendance and doing something to fix the problems. Q: What does the data tell you about how the attendance program has changed Apex High?
At least 25 kids have graduated who wouldnt have walked across that stage otherwise. The School of Social Work at UNC is crunching the numbers with the data Ive collected. Hopefully well learn more. With early identification, we can give students an extra chance.
Im a dropout, and I relate to the kids like that well. If I could describe my program and my award, I would say that building relationships is the key.
I want to get rid of zeroes on assignments and fill in those spots with numbers. I want ninth graders the age when many kids drop out to get a passing grade.
Its a win-win across the board. I get excited when I talk about my program because I wish it could be in more high schools. Q: Do you ever get overwhelmed with the real issues that high-schoolers have?
You can. But I know that its not just me alone. I have Wake County resources, teachers, counselors, a backpack program with food provided by a local church. Apex is a generous community.
We may have missed a need, but we are able to meet most of the needs we encounter.
My hope is that there will be a social worker at every high school in Wake County some day. I know there are high school students whose lives we can change with some care and encouragement.