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Congratulations to the 2023 School Social Work Award Winners

Congratulations to the 2023 School Social Work Award Winners
Group photo of the 2023 School Social Work Award winners

Eight individuals have been recognized for their contributions to the school social work profession at an awards program hosted by the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE). 

School Social Workers of the Year

  • Beatriz Barron, Vista Unified School District      
  • Kerri Björk, Ramona Unified School District
  • Kimberly Israel, Escondido Union School District
  • Michelle Santiago, San Marcos Unified School District 
  • Jennifer Slusher, Coronado Unified School District    

School Social Work Intern of the Year

  • Lito De Luca, SDCOE/Juvenile Court and Community Schools

Trailblazer Award

  • Laurel Dehnel

Jenée Peevy Light Award

  • Anna Schen, SDCOE

About the Awards

In its third year, the School Social Work Awards program honors school social workers and social work interns for the work they do to support students, families, and communities. The Trailblazer Award honors an individual who has paved the way for future generations in the profession to grow and develop while the Jenée Peevy Light Award recognizes individuals for their support of school social workers.

“It’s never been more clear that our students and families need schools to be community hubs designed to not only meet academic needs but support the whole child,” said San Diego County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Gothold. “School social workers play an integral role in the school support team. We are honored to recognize all of our school social workers and interns across the County and congratulate them on this achievement.”

School social workers focus on the whole child, linking students and families to community resources, serving as a valuable voice as part of the school’s multi-disciplinary team while working to address and break barriers to academic achievement. They are trained mental health professionals who provide both direct and indirect services working with school administration, school staff, students, and families to assist students with mental health concerns by providing a host of services that include crisis intervention, counseling for individuals and groups, consulting with teachers, home visits, parent workshops, and advocating for practices and policies that are equitable.

“From the inception of developing the internship program, I felt it was important to recognize School Social Workers in San Diego County because they provide a valuable service to our students, families, and school community as a whole,” said Jenee Peevy, coordinator, SDCOE and awards program coordinator. “They are often working behind the scenes and not always recognized for their work. The awards program provides a forum and opportunity for school social workers to celebrate the rich history and deep contributions of their profession. It is an honor to recognize these deserving individuals and the impactful work they are doing to help San Diego County students, families, and school communities.”

In San Diego County, there are more than 150 school social workers and more than 90 interns from universities who are providing social, emotional, and mental health services to students, families, and staff. SDCOE’s school social work services unit provides professional development and opportunities for school social workers to come together to discuss ways to support students and families across the county. SDCOE and districts partner with several universities to provide internships for students interested in a career in school social work.

The awards ceremony took place during National School Social Work Week, a nationwide recognition encouraging schools, districts, communities, to acknowledge and recognize school social workers. Photos are available on SDCOE’s School Social Work webpage.

About the Honorees

Kimberly Israel, School Social Worker of the Year Award

Kimberly is a licensed clinical social worker and has been a school social worker for 23 years. She is currently the Coordinator of Community Outreach and Integrated Student Supports at Escondido Union School District. Kimberly has risen to multiple positions within this district throughout her career and prior to social work she was a classroom teacher. Kimberly shares that she entered into this profession “...with a vision for the development of community-centered schools; schools that provided access to students and families to the tools and resources needed for academic and personal success.” Kimberly advocated for school social workers within her district, started the internship program, and created collaborative partnerships with community agencies to increase access and support services for students and families.  

Michelle Santiago, School Social Worker of the Year Award

Michelle is a licensed clinical social worker. She has been a school social worker for nine years, but has 30 years of experience working in schools. She is currently the district lead school social worker at San Marcos Unified School District. She is also the PPS Coordinator and Lecturer at California State University San Marcos.  She has served as a coordinator for safe schools and as a therapist for individuals and families, as well as a board member of various professional organizations such as CASSW and SSWAA.  Her colleagues say, “She is a fierce advocate for the field of school social work and takes every opportunity to highlight the role of school social workers and helps to educate others on the incredible work that they do within our schools.”

Beatriz Barron, School Social Worker of the Year Award

Beatriz has been a school social worker for eight years in Vista Unified School District. Prior to this, she was an intern for the Migrant Education Program. Beatriz shares “I am passionate about helping students and families on their journey at VUSD and feel fortunate to be of service in the district that I grew up and continue to live in.”  She strives to be of service to all her students and families to help impact positive changes in their lives.  Her colleagues say she “is an example of advocacy, collaboration, professionalism, and what it means to be an exemplary social worker.”

Kerri Björk, School Social Worker of the Year Award

Kerri is a licensed clinical social worker and has been a school social worker for nine years. Prior to working in Ramona, she worked in Escondido Union School District and as a foster and adoptions case manager. Kerri’s passion is supporting, coaching, and creating positive school culture and climate through MTSS and PBIS initiatives. Kerri shares, “I often say, I would be happy to work my way out of a job by teaching every teacher, staff member, administrator, and even student leaders to be ‘social workers,’ engaging with empathy, creating safe and supportive environments, and focusing on strengths and solutions.” Her colleagues say, “It is not too often when the addition of one person can make such a difference in not only a school, but with students, families, staff, and within the school district. Kerri Bjork is one of those people.”

Jennifer Slusher, School Social Worker of the Year Award

Jennifer is a licensed clinical social worker. She has been a school social worker for 17 years and is currently the clinical counselor in Coronado Unified School District. Prior to this, she worked as a Military Family Life Counselor and a Mental Health Therapist. Jennifer shares that her “passion is in building trauma-informed care programs within schools.” She also believes that positive “...relationships are essential in developing successful interventions and or supports. Even the most outstanding curriculum or intervention will not be effective if the student doesn’t feel connected and loved.” Her colleagues say, “She is a true champion and advocate for mental health supports and services. She inspires students, parents, and staff to continue to do the work in growth and development when it comes to healing, restoring, and building mental health stamina and resilience.” 

Lito De Luca, Outstanding School Social Work Intern Award

Lito interned this school year at Juvenile Court and Community Schools, North Region and graduated from the University of Southern California with his MSW and PPSC in December 2022. Lito was recently hired as a school social worker in Vista Unified School District. Lito truly went above and beyond for JCCS staff, students, and families. He was a beacon of light for many of our students who would often seek him out for support. He has has a passion for service and hopes to develop his own non-profit organization one day.  His colleagues say, “Lito was beyond an intern, he was a Superhero.  He helped our kids and their families in ways that I have never seen an intern support individuals before” and “Lito could make some of our toughest students open up and share things with him that they couldn’t share with their closest friends or family. Lito is going to change the world one student/family at a time.”

Laurel Dehnel, Trailblazer Award

Laurel is a retired school social worker and administrator from the Lemon Grove School District where she provided more than 30 years of service. Laurel spent her career in Lemon Grove as a Parent Family and Community Liaison, a school social worker and a school site administrator.  She continues to support the district as a mentor, substitute administrator, and advocate for the community and families. Laurel made it a point to know everyone's names and made sure students, families and staff were greeted daily, felt valued, and heard. Her colleagues say, “Laurel had relationships at the center of her work. She built relationships within the community and in our school district. She is well respected and loved by all. Laurel made changes at the micro level early in her career, but then worked hard in the macro level writing grants and obtaining her administrative credential so she could affect change and bring the school social work perspective to her work. She is a true trailblazer, it’s an honor to call her a colleague and a friend.”

Jenée Peevy Light Award

Anna Schen is a program specialist at SDCOE’s Juvenile Court and Community Schools. Anna came to the county office almost five years ago from Lemon Grove School District, where she served as a school social worker for more than 13 years. She has been a true asset to the county office and social work services. She is committed and dedicated to the profession, and it shines in everything she does from practicum instruction to facilitation. Says her colleague Jenee Peevy, “I could not have asked for a better colleague/partner to share this work with. She’s my friend, colleague, and inspiration.”

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Low-Cost Computers Available Oct. 7 in San Marcos

Families in San Diego can get used laptop and desktop computers loaded with educational software for as little as $100 at a drive-thru event Oct. 7 from 9 to 11:30 a.m. at San Marcos Elementary School. The program is organized by SDCOE and Computers 2 Kids.