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School Social Work Intern of the Year dedicated to helping children experiencing homelessness

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As a child, Jennifer Weck always knew she wanted to work in a school. When other kids were pretending to be doctors or astronauts, she was pretending to be the school principal. Now, after a career in health and fitness and having two children, Weck has come full circle. She will complete her Master in Social Work (MSW), with an emphasis in school social work, in May 2022. During her field placement, Weck was selected as the 2022 School Social Work Intern of the Year by the San Diego County Department of Education (SDCOE) from nearly 90 interns across the county. 

When Weck initially met with her placement coordinator at SDCOE, she immediately knew she wanted to do her internship at the Monarch School, an innovative, one-of-a-kind K-12 serving children who are experiencing homelessness. Nearly 300 students attend Monarch School each day and are provided a holistic education designed to meet their academic, social, emotional and life skill needs.

“It’s a trauma-informed environment and all of the adults there work from that space,” Weck said. “It doesn’t water down any student expectations, but it creates a place where we’re all there in service of something much greater than ourselves.”

Prior to Weck, Monarch School never had a social worker — and they were not convinced they needed one. After experiencing what a social work perspective could bring to their students and teachers, Monarch School has requested to have a social worker placed with them for the next academic year. Weck was nominated for Intern of the Year by three of her colleagues at Monarch School.

“Social workers come in viewing the system through such a holistic lens,” Weck said. “I thought everybody thought that way and I'm learning that everybody does not. I tell staff all the time: my client is the school. The support is there for everyone, not just the students. A lot of the work that I do is providing classroom support for the teachers and the substitutes.”

School social work is becoming more visible

School social work is becoming an increasingly vital specialization in the field. Currently, there is a bill before the U.S. Congress —HR7037, the School Social Workers Improving Student Success Act — co-sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee of California, herself a former social worker. The bill aims to increase funding for school social workers in order to better handle the complex needs of today’s students, particularly following the COVID-19 pandemic. However, most people are still unfamiliar with what a school social worker is, what they do, or even if their child’s school has one on staff.

“People don’t always know what a school social worker can do,” Weck said. “I think the best part of my preparation for this field was understanding that it’s our job to go in and show them.”

Weck chose to pursue an MSW rather than enrolling in a school counseling program because she did not want to limit herself. She wanted a complete range of tools that she could apply to many situations and client populations, such as the complex range of needs and challenges in her current placement at the Monarch School. She chose USC because it has a specialty in school social work and knew it was right for her.

“Social work wasn't on my radar until I started substitute teaching at my kids’ schools,” Weck said. “I realized I didn't want to be the teacher, but I love being part of the school, I love supporting the students, I love supporting the staff. I started looking into more about what social work is and what social workers do and I realized this is me, this is who I am, this is what I do.”

Commitment that goes beyond the playground borders

Weck saw an opportunity to use her holistic lens and systems-oriented tools in more macro social work setting when a homeless community expanded close by Monarch School in downtown San Diego. At one point she saw many students walking through part of it to get to the school.

“We had to do something to show these people we care about where they’re living and what’s happening to them, as well as our community and neighborhood, and for human dignity and public health,” Weck said. “We also needed to understand that our students know some of the people living in these tents.”

Weck pursued the mayor of San Diego and secured an opportunity to talk to him about the issue. Her perseverance and advocacy garnered her a spot on San Diego’s Regional Task Force on Homelessness where she is now involved in finding solutions for two of the Grand Challenges for Social Work closest to her heart: “ensure healthy development for youth” and “end homelessness.”

“The more social workers I meet, the more I think that social work is a personality and not just a profession,” Weck said. “We don't have any secret answers, it's just about showing up and caring and being really dedicated to the success of another person and their well-being. And that's what I love about it because those are qualities and traits that I’ve embodied throughout my life. So to find that I can apply those things to a career is so satisfying.”

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