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COVID Emergency Funding Allows for Addition of Student Support Professionals

Scott Smiley, Alex Cunningham, and Lindsey Odle (Seated, L to R) join Weakley County Schools social workers Brittany Jaco and Kellie Sims in newly-created Student Support Professional roles to help address the increasing social and emotional needs evident in schools countywide. The positions were made possible with federal Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief funding. Also shown is Rylee Bell, a Dresden native and soon-to-be UT Martin graduate, who is interning with Jaco this semester.


Weakley County Schools Communications Director

WEAKLEY COUNTY (February 3) – Thanks to the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER 3.0) federal grant of $8.6 million, three Student Support Professionals (SSPs) have joined the Weakley County Schools’ (WCS) response local network for addressing the social and emotional needs of students.

As part of their multi-day orientation last week, Alex Cunningham, Lindsey Odle, and Scott Smiley heard from school principals and school counselors. Joined by longtime school WCS social workers Brittany Jaco and Kellie Sims and Coordinator of Safe Schools Lorna Benson, the new recruits spent the week establishing processes and assignments as well devoting two hours with school leadership discussing current concerns.

On Wednesday, principals and school counselors introduced themselves pointing to several observed trends – increased anxiety regarding grades and workload, negative impact of social media, struggles related to poverty and/or problems within the family/home life, strain of living in foster care, and incidents of drug abuse and threats of suicide.

All acknowledged students and faculty have suffered from dealing with the pandemic. Martin Primary School Principal Tracey Bell noted that none of the school’s current pre-K through second grade population have experienced a “regular” year as the result of COVID-19.

Randy Frazier told the gathering that the last few years have proven to be unique in his 13-year tenure as Weakley County Schools Director in that he has observed “more children coming to us with more behavioral issues that should have been addressed much earlier.”

With more than 4,000 students enrolled in the system, a pandemic, and, most recently, the communitywide trauma caused by the December tornado, the two social work professionals assigned to assist both teachers and students with prevention and intervention measures acknowledge that most of their energy has been focused on assessment and linking students and families to needed services. Solution-based therapy was on a limited and short-term basis.

Sims focuses on children and youth who have Individualized Education Plans in the special education program. Jaco addresses the rest of the general population.

“Once we receive a referral, either from family or a teacher, the majority of the job is mediating between parents, the school system, staff and the child to get everyone on the same page,” explained Jaco. “However, we are both available at any time in a crisis situation.”

With a combined total of more than three and half decades of experience, both agree that mental health issues are on the rise.

“We are even seeing more and more children entering Pre-K and Kindergarten who are coming to us with behavioral problems,” Sims noted. And with every new student requiring assistance, comes mounds of state and federally-required documentation.

The dire situation has been recognized locally as requests for adding social workers has been an unmet budgetary dilemma for several years. Summaries of state meetings to discuss a proposed new approach to the state’s funding of school systems also repeatedly mention the need for additional social workers.

ESSER funding made the additions of the Student Support Professionals possible.

During the orientation meeting, administrators and counselors expressed gratitude for the current resources such as Sims, Jaco and Benson along with school nurses and a School Resource Officer who all help to ensure students’ well-being, but were swift with words of welcome and appreciation for the three newcomers.

Lindsey Odle is the most recent addition to the Weakley County area. A native of California, she and her husband and two children moved to Dresden just over a year ago and calls the community a “breath of fresh air.” With a master’s in counseling psychology, she recognizes one of the challenges she and her cohorts will face is “seeing teachers and staff being overwhelmed due to the pandemic and COVID, the recent tornado and overall mental health issues with students.” In her new role, she hopes both students and staff will know the new team is “here to help make a positive difference in the Weakley County School system.”

Born in Lavinia and now living in Huntingdon, Alex Cunningham earned a master’s in social work from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Previously, she was employed with Northwest Tennessee Headstart and has a background of working with family units. Married with two preschoolers, she says she enjoys “working with children and their families” and notes that “early intervention is a huge step in student success.”

Scott Smiley has a new role but is a familiar face to Weakley County Schools. The Kentucky native now living in Trenton has degrees from Johnson Bible College and Lincoln Christian Seminary and 18 years of experience that most recently included serving as the Student Assistance Program Counselor for Weakley County Schools, a relationship made possible through a contract with Carey Counseling Center. Aware of the long-term stress of COVID-19, family stress, academic and social demands at school, social media’s impact on the brain and as a cause of sleep problems, as well as drug and alcohol issues, he says he hopes to support students to “feel confident about themselves and to feel motivated to enjoy life.” He is married with three adult children.

Jaco told the administrators and counselors that the process of receiving referrals or requests for assistance would not change and that, rather than assign the SSPs to certain schools, a weekly meeting to triage cases and maximize the skill sets each individual brings to the team will be employed.

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