Social worker's departure leaves students without help

Dec. 18, 2003, midnight | By Sherri Geng | 17 years, 1 month ago

A Blair social worker will be laid off next month due to a lack of funds, leaving behind nearly two dozen students.

Licensed clinical social worker Phyllis Smolkin, whose work is currently supported by a private grant from the Montgomery County Business Roundtable for Education (MCBRE), will be forced to leave Blair this January after working intensively for two years with over 60 Blair students.

Smolkin's termination will result in a "big loss to the Blair community," according to Montgomery County Council President Mike Subin, who made a personal appeal on Smolkin's behalf to both Principal Phillip Gainous and Superintendent Jerry Weast.

Smolkin's extensive work with students will be sorely missed, said Gainous. "It's unfortunate we lost the funding," he said. "It's needed. She provided a real service to a number of kids and their families."

Smolkin considers herself a voice for students who "fall through the cracks," of which there are many in a school as large as Blair. "I work with kids that a lot of times the administrators kick out," she said. "They're not bad kids; they're just hurting."

Smolkin's departure will result in a severe lack of resources and stability for troubled students who are seeking help. While MCPS offers a school psychologist, Gainous worries because in a large school like Blair, the psychologist is often "tied up" in Special Education, where much of the time is spent testing students.

MCPS psychologists are licensed to evaluate students for psychological conditions but only do a minimal amount of student counseling, according to Smolkin. As a result, students would most likely work with school guidance counselors, who are not trained in clinical social work.

The situation has also spawned responses from Blair's student community, including a heart-felt plea to Gainous. "If it weren't for her, only God knows where I would be or how my life would turn out," writes one student. "To me, she is like a second mother. Your money wouldn't be going to waste. Please, if you can, find it in your heart to help someone who really helps others."

Assistant Principal Richard Wilson has witnessed Smolkin's interactions with students and staff firsthand and sees her work as an integral part of the support structure at Blair. "The more she has a chance to see these students, the more we have seen them starting to straighten out," he said.

Smolkin fears that it will be too late once a troubled student from Blair has developed into adulthood without professional guidance. "What they cost society if they drop from school is enormous compared to my salary," she said. "What's the cost to keep one kid in juvenile justice? It's pay now or pay later."

In his letter, Subin encouraged Gainous to find the necessary funds to support Smolkin's once-a-week position at Blair, but a countywide budget crunch and a hiring and expenditure freeze effective since Oct. 27 has ruled out the possibility of obtaining financial endorsement from MCPS. "Clearly this woman's position was not in Weast's budget," said PTSA President Valerie Ervin. "It's unfortunate, but we are going to be witnessing a lot of budget cuts that go down the food chain to the school level."

Given the tight economic conditions, Ervin feels that Subin's letter is pushing Gainous to find unrealistic solutions and draw on money that he does not control. Gainous is unable to use Blair's independent revenue to support Smolkin's salary due to a County Council law that forbids the use of a school's independent funds to sponsor MCPS staff positions.

After realizing months ago that the MCBRE funds might be terminated, Gainous appointed an administrative team to scout for grant sources that would pick up Smolkin's stipend.

Wilson, who has been exploring private organizations in hopes of salvaging Smolkin's position, fears additional funding will not come through in time. "I wouldn't bet the house on it, what with money being so tight," he said.

Smolkin's contract was originally due to expire at the end of 2003, but MCBRE Executive Director Bob Anastasi was able to extend her funding through January. "It's a closed door after he leaves," said Smolkin. "This is the first time I've come to this dead end."

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