[Dr. Powell Walker taught me] that I had a right to speak up for myself, a right to do what is best for my mental health, and a right to be safe, in every sense [of the word],” said Sabrina*, a senior at Clayton High School. Sabrina is one of many students to benefit from the recent addition of social worker Dr. Sheila Powell Walker to the Clayton High School and Wydown Middle School faculty.
Despite Walker’s recent start, it did not take long for her to start making a difference in the lives of Clayton students.
In Sabrina’s case, she sought to talk with a professional who could give her advice on how to handle her tumultuous home life, as well as potentially aid her in leaving.
“I went specifically right after a weekend where my parents were fighting with my brother because they found out that he smoked weed and burned his throat. They were saying they were going to disown him, and I just thought the environment at home was not fit for me. I wasn’t safe, nor happy, nor mentally stable, so I went to go check [in with] Dr. Powell Walker,” Sabrina said.
Sabrina’s first few sessions moved rather slowly, serving as the objective was mainly just to gain information.
“Around the 3rd visit, that’s when she really started giving me programs and different resources that I could use to help myself. She really validated a lot of the things that I thought were right; I just felt more empowered” Sabrina said.
Walker’s extensive repertoire of community resources and programs was attractive to the district in that her connections would expand upon Clayton’s emphasis on the “whole child”, which refers to emotional, physical, and intellectual growth. “[The Administration] wanted someone who can connect with the kids, who has done the work, and has those established connections. [We looked for someone who] knows those resources and has established those relationships with various organizations to kind of hit the ground running, and then someone with a strong mental health background. We were very lucky with what we found with Dr. Powell-Walker,” CHS Principal Dr. Dan Gutchewsky said.
“She has a lot of experience as a social worker and so she’s worked with many families, so there is a lot of variety on what she can help us with,” he continued. “She can help connect us with mental health [programs] as well as connecting families with whether it be energy assistance or food pantries, whatever the case may be. She kind of runs the show actually, in being able to provide a level of service that we just haven’t before because it goes beyond what a school counselor would be able to do.”
Carolyn Blair, CHS Counseling Services Director, played a key role in the decision to hire Walker, as the social worker and the guidance counselors work hand-in-hand. Blair admires Walker’s community-wide connections and ability to utilize resources from different local agencies.
“She had some ideas that she brought that we could use in the school already, [as well as] some outside agencies that she not only knows about, but had a connection to the inroads of that agency, so that we would be able to get help pretty quickly,” Blair said.
Walker views her role as School Social worker as having a “responsibility to work alongside parents, teachers, students, nurses, counselors, and other specialists within the school setting as well as in the community to make sure that our students have all the tools that they need to be successful here at Clayton High School and beyond. Part of my work is that not only do [students] graduate college and career ready, but that they graduate socially and emotionally ready as well.”
Despite the official title, Walker feels that helping people transcends her daily responsibilities as a social worker.
“As far back as I can remember, I have always been a helper,” Walker said. “Even in school I was always one of those people that the friends would come to…I am also the oldest of three children, so I’ve always kind of been in that role of big sister, [my siblings] would always come and ask for support. I think over the years, the work I’ve done helping the people I care about grew into a passion, [and] it resulted in a career.”
In high school, Walker had her heart set on becoming a pediatrician. She felt that her desire to help would outweigh her difficulties in science and math.
Once in college, Walker didn’t have much luck with chemistry and biology.
“I did not get such good grades, but I was determined, I was gonna keep trying, I was gonna keep trying. But if I’m honest with myself, I really wasn’t really putting a lot of energy into trying to improve my grades in those classes because I just simply wasn’t as passionate about [the science], but I just kept trudging along,” Walker said. She met with her advisor, Mr. Moseby, who recommended her to take an Introduction to Social Work class, as it was clear that medicine was not the right fit, but the desire to aid others was there.
Walker credits Moseby as one of the key sources of inspiration that paved the path to her becoming a social worker.
“One word from somebody can turn your situation around and get you moving in the right direction” Walker said.
She had been skeptical of the idea, but immediately realized that social work was the right fit.
“From the very first day that I sat down in that class…I felt like I had made it home. I felt like I had found my people. They spoke my language, they understood how I looked at the world, and from there it was just ‘I’m where I’m supposed to be’,” Walker said.
Walker was integral in providing the support so that Sabrina could finally leave her home, although Walker never endorsed any decision or tried to sway her. “[Once] I had a plan [for] moving out, [Dr. Powell Walker] was really good in not judging what I [was] doing, as she never put her personal opinions in our sessions, and she never stopped me from accomplishing what I wanted. She was very professional…when I said I wanted to move out, all she did was tell me how to do it safely and how to do it in a responsible manner,” Sabrina said.
Walker explained that Missouri school districts are ranked in terms of achievement, subgroup achievement, graduation rate, attendance rate, and college and career readiness. “The subgroup achievement is where I see myself most critically important as a social worker. The subgroup includes our kids who are African American, Latino, [those] who live in poverty, English Language Learners, and kids who have disabilities that are being taken care of either by a 504 or an IEP plan,” she said.
“The history of the performance of those children in education has said that they don’t always perform as well as their white counterparts on those tests. The idea is that school districts are being asked to put extra effort into making sure that they are being supported, that we do everything we can to lift the kids in the subgroup,” Walker said. “Basically, the idea is that maybe there could be some barriers that are outside of their control. If we can make sure that you have all of your needs met, then it increases the likelihood that you can be present at school and fully access the curriculum.”
Sabrina credits Walker with teaching her self worth. “Before, I was never really thought that I had a right to feel good, to feel like I’m worth something and valued, and she made a point to tell me that my rights were important, and that I didn’t have to be under anyone else,” she said.
“I feel a lot better emotionally and mentally now, I don’t feel like I am doing everything wrong all the time. I feel like I am actually treated more like a human where I am now than where I was, as opposed to having a family life that is always making sure you know that what you’re doing is wrong, and then pointing out the flaws over any accomplishments. It is still kind of hard, leaving your family, and there are times when I forget that I am not alone. But Dr. Powell-Walker…she just keeps me grounded, she makes sure I don’t get overly emotional, but she lets me have emotions at the same time. She makes sure I react with a cool head,” said Sabrina.
Walker feels fortunate to have been able to help so many students already, but also feels the need to encourage other students to seek out a referral from their counselor if they are in need of additional resources or professional attention.
“High school students tend to take care of themselves more, they might not be so inclined to come in and say they need help, unless they get to a point where they really need help. I find that students tend to depend on each other…you must also remember that your friend is the same or close to your age, they can only give you the benefit of their experience. You have to keep in mind that while it is good to have friends to talk things over with, you might want to talk with someone who is older and wiser, who has walked your walk already, so that you can make sure you are on the right path and moving in the right direction,” Walker said.
Having transferred from the previously unaccredited school district of Riverview Gardens, Walker certainly felt the pressure of people not understanding why she made the move to Clayton. As an affluent suburban school district, Clayton has a reputation for lacking the problems which plague inner-city schools. However, Walker stands firmly in her belief that people are in need of help whether they talk about it or not. Walker said, “You should come to Clayton and you should hang out; you will find that people are people. While the problems might look different, they are still problems, and people still need help… Come and visit us. You’ll find out that we have a lot of the same challenges that other people have, and don’t just assume that because it’s Clayton that kids don’t need help, because they do,” Powell-Walker said.