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 First San Diego County School Social Workers of the Year Announced

Seven award winners for 2021 School Social Workers of the Year, named in the story

As part of National School Social Work Week, the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) has named five individuals as San Diego School Social Workers of the Year and two received special awards for their contributions to the profession.

The School Social Workers of the Year are:

  • Christopher Walsh, district social worker Vista La Mesa Academy; Lemon Grove School District (Elementary)
  • Maria Al-Shamma, school social worker, Rancho Minerva Middle School, Vista High School, and Vista Adult Transition Center; Vista Unified School District (Middle)
  • Lisa Read, school social worker, Steele Canyon High School; Grossmont Union High School District (High)
  • Tracy Schmidt, director of integrated student supports; Escondido Union School District (Administration)
  • Kristina Estes, social work intern, multiple school sites; La Mesa-Spring Valley and Escondido Union High School districts (Intern) 
  • Steve Manos, retired school social worker, Trailblazer Award
  • Jenée Peevy, program specialist, SDCOE, Light Award

Manos was recognized with the Trailblazer Award, which honors an individual who has paved the way for future generations in the profession to grow and develop. SDCOE’s Jenée Peevy, program specialist for school social work services and the event’s coordinator, was awarded the first Light Award by her colleagues for her continued dedication to the profession. 

“We are honored to recognize these school social workers and the social work profession,” said San Diego County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Gothold. " School social workers play such an important role because they are compassionate listeners who hear the needs of our students. They are professionally trained to see the whole child, and also skilled at working collaboratively with other individuals and organizations to provide students and families with needed resources and supports.”

This is the first year that SDCOE’s School Social Work Services unit has handed out these awards. The honorees were recognized during an event themed “Resiliency of School Social Workers: Impacting Meaningful Change in Challenging Times” that also included several guest speakers from SDCOE, The California Association of School Social Workers (CASSW), and a keynote address from Patrick Mulkern, a school social worker from San Francisco Unified School District. Several superintendents, board members, and colleagues also spoke about each of the honorees. 

The event was launched as a way to highlight the incredible work of school social workers who balance resiliency, passion, and perseverance while simultaneously serving students, families, and staff. 

“School social workers are humble and passionate professionals,” Peevy said. “They are not always recognized so it has been my goal to advocate for the role of the school social worker. We look at the big picture - the whole person. We’re here to support academics and to address barriers to students who are not able to academically succeed. We’re here to provide that social and emotional support to students and their families, help provide resources from the community, and serve as that link between the school and home communities.” 

School social workers provide support in a variety of ways and each day must be ready to adapt and be flexible. They are trained mental health professionals that 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.

In San Diego County, there are about 70 school social workers in 17 school districts and interns from universities that 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 have also partnered with several universities to provide internships for students interested in a career in school social work.

The awards celebration took place during National School Social Work Week, an opportunity for districts and schools nationwide to honor their school social workers and raise visibility for the profession.

Sponsors of the event included CASSW, Starbucks, Bath and Body Works, and the SDCOE school social work services unit. Each honoree also received a basket full of self-care items donated from various community organizations. 

These five school social workers were chosen out of over 30 submissions. Brief bios of the five San Diego County School Social Workers of the Year, the Trailblazer Award, and the Light Award are included below.  A list of nominees is available here

Christopher Walsh, LCSW, has been a school social worker for the past 29 years in the Lemon Grove School District.  When asked what he was most passionate about as a school social worker, he said, “The most important thing that I do as a school social worker is preserve the health and safety of my students and families.”  Chris’s colleagues shared: Chris “stands out because of how much he cares about students and families and how connected he is to the Lemon Grove community and beyond.”  “Chris is kind, competent, genuine, honest, humble, and passionate about school social work.”  “Chris approaches others with respect and always puts what is best for the student or family at the forefront.”

Tracy Schmidt, LCSW, has been a school social worker for the past 16 years in the Escondido Union School District.  When asked what she was most passionate about as a school social worker, she said, “I’m passionate about how incredibly lucky I feel to work in the service of children and families. To know that we have a unique opportunity to change the trajectory of a life, whether that is through advocating for a system change, or providing a direct service.”  Tracy’s colleagues shared: “Mrs. Schmidt is an amazing social work leader. She is always calm, thoughtful, respectful, and a true advocate for our students, families, and school social workers.”  “She has worked tirelessly to advocate for the rights of students by leading and driving her decisions through the social work code of ethics. To know Mrs. Schmidt is to look up to her and to be influenced by her incredible efforts to support students and families.”

Lisa Read, LCSW, has been a school social worker for 14 years, working in the Grossmont Union High School District where she is currently at Steele Canyon High School. When asked what she was most passionate about as a school social worker, she said: “I aim to empower people to find their strengths, to find their voice, to learn about assertiveness and how to advocate for themselves, and that any of the negative experiences they may have had in their families does not define them. They get to decide their own life journey.”  Lisa’s colleagues shared: “Lisa encompasses what you think of and need in a social worker and student support expert.”  “Lisa is knowledgeable, caring, professional, and compassionate. Since joining Steele Canyon, she has helped to improve the lives of many students, their families, and even staff.”

Maria Al-Shamma, MSW, has been a school social worker for the past 5 years and is currently working in Vista Unified School District. When asked what she was most passionate about as a school social worker, she said: “LGBTQ youth are some of our most vulnerable students. School can potentially be the one place in a young person’s life where they are accepted, respected, or shown love for exactly who they are. I strive not only to help them make it through school, but to thrive. I want them to be safe, respected, and affirmed.” Maria’s colleagues shared: “Maria has shown her ability to work with a variety of students, as well as the ability to move amongst three schools and still make each school feel she is dedicated solely to them.”  “Her work ethic is superior and her dedication to student success is exemplary.”

Kristina Estes, MSW candidate and graduate student intern in La Mesa Spring Valley School District and Escondido Union High School District. When asked what she was most passionate about as a school social work intern, she said: “My primary passion in life is to work with children in a social work role. Not only do I get to work with students, but I am responsible for assisting their families and community, which also helps and impacts student success outside of the school setting.”  Her colleagues shared: “Kristina has been flexible, hardworking, and determined to support our students and families.  She has great integrity and a huge work ethic. Kristina is very thoughtful and reflective. She is committed to doing her very best and having the biggest impact she can have.” 

Steve Manos, LCSW retired school social worker. Steve grew up in neighboring El Centro and was in foster care for part of his childhood. He served in the Army and then in 1964 entered the first class in the School of Social Work at San Diego State University. Steve was employed as a therapist, district counselor, assistant director of school of social work, and was a school social worker in the Grossmont Union High School District. Steve became a member of CASSW in 1968 and helped revive CASSW as NASW/CA-SSW Council in the 1990s and restart in 2004. He served as board president, San Diego region coordinator and community organization liaison. Steve retired in 2001, but still serves the school social work profession through continued advocacy and support.    

Jenée Peevy, MSW, PPSC/CWA, has been working at SDCOE for 15 years. She is currently a program specialist, social work services unit in System of Supports, Student Services and Program Division. She began her work her at SDCOE with Juvenile Court and Community Schools as a parent and family liaison. In 2012, she began working for Student Support Services where she supported San Diego County school districts with AmeriCorps, social and emotional/mental health, emotional literacy programs, parent workshops, SART/SARB, MTSS, PBIS and Restorative Practices. For the past 14 years, Jenée has served as a social work field Instructor/supervisor for several universities and over 200 students interested in a career in social work.  She currently serves on board for the California Association School Social Workers Association (CASSW, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and Task force for the Revision of School Social Work Standards.