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Thatcher wins School Social Worker of Year Award

Carmen Thatcher 2023 Kathy Armenta School Social Worker of YearWhen the Texas School Social Workers Conference called her in early February, Carmen Thatcher, LCSW, director of student support, thought a conference staff member was confirming a presentation. 


She was wrong. Much to her surprise, the caller informed Thatcher she was named the 2023 Kathy Armenta Texas School Social Worker of the Year. She was even more surprised when she arrived at the conference to see a giant congratulatory poster bearing her name.


“There were over 1,000 social workers attending that conference,” Thatcher said. “Five others were nominated. Everything they did was great, too. I’m just really happy about it.”


Thatcher received her award at the conference at the University of Texas at Austin on Thursday, Feb. 23.


This award, in its 23rd year, was established to recognize excellence in school-based social work practice.


Named after Kathy Armenta, LCSW, retired UT Steve Hicks Clinical Faculty member, former Texas School Social Workers Conference chair, and former school social worker, the award is given to an individual who has demonstrated exceptional skill and expertise in the area of school social work.


Thatcher, in her 13th year with San Antonio ISD, has more than 24 years of experience in social work in areas including schools, hospitals, nursing homes, law enforcement, and private practice. In her school experience alone, she has served as a campus social worker at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, and also worked as a social worker for the Teen Parenting Program and with students covered under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.


“Being a social worker, you have a really big array of jobs that you can do, but I’ve always been drawn back to working in schools,” Thatcher said. “I really feel like students come first. That’s my motto.  Being in the hospital setting, I would see parents. I could see the flip side of why sometimes our students suffer or they aren’t doing as well as they can. I’ve always been drawn back to the student, to see if we can try to do something positive to get them help.”


It’s the third time in five years that members of the San Antonio ISD social work team have been recognized through this Kathy Armenta Award program. In 2019, Thatcher was one of the five finalists for the award and was given an honorable mention. In 2021, former coordinator of parent support programs, Mary Baez Chavez also received an honorable mention nod. 


A lot has changed since Thatcher’s last nomination. The disruptions and changes to education caused by the COVID-19 pandemic caused the Student and Academic Support Services division to be more deliberate in how it reached out to families, so as not to duplicate efforts. The district developed a student tracker system to help counselors and social workers see who had communicated with families. But the system has grown into an important data collection tool, documenting the depth and breadth of services the team provides to students across the district. 


The district’s team of only 40 social workers had already assisted more than 4,900 students by the end of the third nine weeks, providing more than 18,000 touchpoints supporting student academics, attendance, and mental health and safety, among many other buckets. 


The other major change has been the push that Thatcher has made to allow Licensed Master Social Workers the option to be supervised to become clinical social workers. Thatcher said she pitched the idea when district leadership was looking for ideas to help with mental health.


“I said it would be nice if we could have our LMSWs supervised so that they could become clinical social workers,” Thatcher said. “They would get to practice in their setting with the students they know.”


Normally, when social workers want to become clinical therapists, they have to work their day jobs, and then go somewhere else in the evening where they can do clinical work and pay someone to supervise them. It’s a costly proposition — around $50 an hour or more for 100 hours of direct supervision with 3,000 hours of direct service. 


“We are able to do it all in house,” Thatcher said. “This is the first program that I am aware of in the state of Texas where you didn’t have to pay for supervision. We were able to combine them where you didn't have to pay for supervision in a school setting, because they were already doing the work. It’s been a really good program for our social workers.”


Thatcher said there are already 16 social workers taking advantage of the two-year program, and they hope to continue adding more next year, as a way to attract and retain the best social workers in San Antonio ISD, which in turn helps SAISD students and families. 


Her advocacy for the department evidences the wisdom she gained with her boots on the ground at the campus level and fits the criteria of the Texas School Social Workers award: someone who develops creative strategies or techniques for working within schools, and has made a significant impact within a district, campus, or specific population. 


“Carmen Thatcher has direct experience as a school social worker and recognizes the complex social work issues that many of our students and their families encounter,” Victoria Bustos, executive director of Student and Academic Support Services, said. “Her skill set and innovative thinking enhance her leadership and supervisory capacity as a true advocate for professional social work in SAISD.”

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